Late-session spending spree puts drain on budget surplus

Thursday, October 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Lawmakers worried key programs will suffer

By Robert Dodge / The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON – This year's two major presidential candidates have big ideas about what they would do with the mounting budget surplus. Yet, even before voters go to the polls Nov. 7, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill are draining the surplus coffers.

The next president, whether it is Vice President Al Gore or Gov. George W. Bush, will show up at the White House to find that Congress and President Clinton committed billions of dollars to spending programs. And the new initiatives will be financed with future surpluses that otherwise could have provided tax cuts or a rescue for the nation's retirement programs.

"We will not be able to rebuild Social Security, reform Medicare to provide prescription drugs and cut taxes for working people if we spend all this money," said Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas.

Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, put it this way: "We are going through this ludicrous fiction that is a public lie."

Both were expressing frustration with billions of dollars that colleagues have added to spending bills in the final days of the 106th session of Congress. Meeting in closed-door negotiations, lawmakers have earmarked each of 13 appropriations bills with thousands of additional spending items, including many targeted to benefit their constituents.

No one knows the final tally yet, but budget experts predicted lawmakers would approve discretionary spending of at least $637 billion for the 2001 fiscal year that began Oct. 1. That would be 18 percent more than the limits adopted in the 1997 balanced-budget law.

In fact, Congress has consistently busted its budgets since 1997 by as much as $50 billion after raising its spending limits each year. By the end of fiscal year 2001, Congress will probably have spent more than $140 billion in excess of its budgets since approving the balanced-budget agreement.Carol Cox Wait, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, noted that discretionary spending increases during the last three years were the largest since the end of the Vietnam War.

And more of the budget surplus appeared to have been committed Wednesday as the president and Republicans neared agreement on a 10-year, $250 billion tax cut package. The package is expected to include incentives for retirement savings and breaks for health care and poor areas, as well as small-business relief to offset the cost of a higher minimum wage.

Business as usual

Republicans blamed Mr. Clinton for the excess while trying to explain the spending items added by GOP members.

"A lot of people are saying we need additional spending in a variety of areas," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.

And House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Flower Mound, portrayed the year-end spending frenzy as business as usual.

"The fact of the matter is, it is not new for members of Congress to have very important things that they want to accomplish in their districts, roads, bridges, any number of things," Mr. Armey said. "And it is not new for that to be included in the process and for that to be called pork."

Mr. Clinton scolded Congress for not finishing its work on the budget and for not spending enough on education and prescription drugs for seniors.

"From this point forward, Congress should work every day and every night to put progress over partisanship, to make the investments in education our schools need and our children deserve," Mr. Clinton said at the White House.

For many programs, appropriators granted the president every dime he asked for and then added more. And critics said that much of the new spending is for pork barrel items, expenditures added outside the usual competitive appropriations process.

"Never before has the appropriations process been such a clearinghouse for literally thousands of individual grants and construction projects coveted as favors for voters," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., adding that the emerging 2001 budget is "one of the most gluttonous, pork-driven, self-serving spending agendas we've seen yet."

Pork or necessities?

Included in the spending bills are billions for new highways, road repairs and bridges, as well as water, energy and emergency projects. In the energy and water appropriations bill alone, Mr. McCain estimated there was $1.2 billion in pork barrel spending that required 21 pages to list.

Among the items is $150,000 for the government to study whether it wants to do a water or energy project in southwestern Pennsylvania, $2 million for the design and construction of a biomass ethanol manufacturing facility in southeast Alaska and $2 million for an underground, hydrogen-powered mining locomotive and earth loader in Nevada.

Other items included $1.25 million for weed control programs in Montana and Idaho, $487,000 for a carriage barn in Longfellow, Mass., $500,000 for the National First Ladies Library in Ohio, $500,000 for local citizen participation in projects to protect historic sites on the Lewis and Clark Trail and $176,000 for the Reindeer Herders Association.

And there's more. Members got $1.5 million for cold-water fish in Montana and Idaho, $500,000 for bighorn sheep in Nevada and $500,000 for the black-capped vireo, an endangered bird in Texas. And there is $50 million for community transportation projects, including $750,000 for a trolley study in Fort Worth.

The trolley study illustrates that what one critic sees as pork, another sees as an important program.

"It is a priority for the city of Fort Worth," said Francis Marine, a spokeswoman for Republican Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth, who added the provision to the transportation appropriations bill.

The spending binge comes just as the administration reported that the fiscal 2000 budget surplus was a record $237 billion. The third annual surplus in consecutive years since the late 1940s supports the forecast that the growing economy will produce about $4.6 trillion in excess revenues during the next decade.

That sum includes about $2.6 trillion of surpluses that will accumulate in the Social Security trust fund before the baby boom generation begins to retire.

Robert Bixby, national policy director at the Concord Coalition, a balanced-budget advocacy group, said lawmakers could easily consume two-thirds of the projected non-Social Security surplus if they do not change course.

Instead of having $2 trillion available, future presidents and lawmakers could end up with just $700 billion to fund their priorities.