Washington Goes on a Spending Spree
An extra $100 billion in pork and programs
Nearly two weeks past its promised departure date, Congress remains in Washington, locked in a standoff with the White House and mired in its own disarray over the federal budget. And as the dealing crackles up and down Pennsylvania Avenue and across the Capitol rotunda, the shenanigans are going to cost a staggering amount of money. By some estimates, if the spending increases continue at the current pace--nearly twice the rate of inflation--the non-Social Security surplus could be eliminated in less than five years.
"There is a spending orgy going on," says Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat. Whenever they finally get out of town--they hope this week, but they've said that before--lawmakers will have put in place a 2001 budget with record spending levels to satisfy a long list of supplicants. "It will be the greatest increase in spending ever," says Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a crusader against what he calls "bipartisan pork barreling." In recent years, Washington has been seized by an end-of-session frenzy when bills that have been stalled for months suddenly move with blinding speed, defying scrutiny and rational accounting. This year, discretionary spending, the portion of the budget over which Congress has control, is approaching the previously unthinkable amount of $650 billion. Consider that just two years ago that number came in at $575 billion, and last year the Congress approved $586 billion for nonmandatory programs.
Feast day. The $650 billion figure must be stacked against the famed 1997 balanced-budget deal. Under that agreement, the government was supposed to spend $541 billion in discretionary dollars this year. They should miss the mark by a mere $100 billion or so. The Republicans will outspend their own budget resolution passed this spring by about $50 billion. Election-year politics, an irrepressible instinct for pork, and a unique moment of plenty have combined to create a kind of fiscal third-base coach waving everybody home to score whatever spending project his heart desires.
It's an old game being played with new intensity. "I think the surplus has removed some of the braking influence," says McCain. "It's different in degree, not in kind," says Robert Reischauer, president of the Urban Institute. "It is different because we have an election and a burgeoning surplus, and no member in the House or the Senate wants to get caught on the wrong side of an issue that might upset a constituent." In addition to paying for the expected items like operation of the air traffic control system and the federal courts, taxpayers this year will pay for a project in Nevada to study ways to enable air passengers to get boarding passes at hotels. They will pay for research on Vidalia onions in Georgia and for peanut allergy research in Alabama.
The spending comes in big chunks and small. In Alaska, thanks to Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, taxpayers will spend $176,000 to help the Reindeer Herders Association. Stevens set aside a total of $43 million for other Alaska transportation projects. Alabamians may be forever grateful for the $1.5 million set aside to help restore the venerable Vulcan statue in Birmingham, a 56-foot, iron rendition of the Roman god of fire and metalwork. Built as an entry for the 1904 World's Fair, it won the grand prize in the Palace of Metallurgy. Stewart Dansby, executive director of the Vulcan Park Foundation, says officials at the organization talked to Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby about helping to fund the renovation. "Why are federal tax dollars being spent on a statue in Birmingham?" asks Dansby. "Because Vulcan is symbolic of American industrial strength. He represents the working person and . . . . These are federal dollars that would have gone somewhere."