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."
There is ample evidence of that. The huge surpluses projected over the next decade--$268 billion next year--may have forever changed politics in Washington. The result is a kind of giddiness. "The surplus is burning a hole in our pocket. It is affecting our judgment," says Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.
Pork vs. programs. The White House, which has turned late-session budget negotiating into a primer on political arm-twisting, seems on target for its best year yet. Already Clinton and his campaigning vice president have landed $12 billion to fund six years of conservation projects intended to protect urban parks, recreational green space, forests, and coastal areas. And after long and bitter GOP opposition, there is now wide agreement that Clinton will extract a minimum-wage hike to $6.15 an hour. "He'll get everything he wants," said one Hill Republican.
Despite a dramatic GOP call for allotting 90 percent of next year's surplus for debt reduction, a generally chaotic budget process has stymied Republican efforts to hold their own spending in check. "The longer the process goes, the more leverage the president has," says Reischauer, "and the dynamic that is developing with the Republicans is that `if he is getting away with murder, we should be able to commit it, too.' " Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel told Congressional Quarterly: "We are actually putting more money in some of these appropriations bills than Clinton wants." And Clinton wants a lot--$621 billion in discretionary spending out of his total budget of $1.83 trillion. For example, the president wants $8 million for preservation of historic buildings at black colleges and $850 million to reduce class sizes in the nation's schools. The GOP refused many of Clinton's requests, and therein lies the standoff.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert has been fighting a losing battle with the Senate and the White House to get the budget bill done. The usually difficult appropriations process is made more difficult by the flush times. "It's tough to be disciplined because every good idea comes along and there is no wall," Hastert says, "You say `No' a lot and people say, `Why not? Here's the money. Let's do it.' "
Hastert has resorted to cookie theory to explain his aspirations for the surplus. After lunch one day recently he told his guests: "Look at that plate of cookies on the table. Everybody is entitled to a cookie or two cookies or three cookies, but when we leave, my staff comes in and the cleanup crew comes in and there will be no cookies left on that plate. Because they're there, they'll eat them all, and the surplus is the same way. Our job is to take the cookies off the table." Asked how much money Congress will leave on the table this year, Hastert says it'll be more than the $600 billion in the spring budget resolution. And he sounds absolutely convinced when he says: "It won't be $650 billion."
But conviction is an unreliable commodity in Washington these days, especially when money is involved.
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Senators from both sides of the aisle have been treating themselves to hundreds of spending programs of peculiar, and perhaps dubious, value. Examples:
Harry Reid (D-Nevada) has secured more than $14 million for five projects in Nevada, including $2 million to enable airline passengers to get boarding passes at their hotels.
Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) added more than $7 million to next year's agriculture bill to fund "integrated cow resources management and agriculture-based industrial lubricants research."
Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) has earmarked $5.25 million for a new dorm at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, a facility run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the appropriator in chief, scored $400,000 for a parking lot in Talkeetna - a slice of the $43 million in special projects he pulled out of the transportation bill.
Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico), a nominal budget hawk, claims that the $200,000 he got for a railroad museum in Las Cruces "could improve transportation for the entire nation."
Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) opposed federal involvement in peanut allergy research in 1998, but he has secured $500,000 for the same in fiscal year 2001.
Source: Citizens Against Government Waste
This story appears in the October 23, 2000 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.