Coming This Summer: Government Gridlock, The Sequel

When President Clinton and Republican congressional leaders signed their balanced-budget pact in May, it looked like Washington would avoid an annual ritual: partisan gridlock over the 13 spending bills needed to keep the government running for the next year. But early signs suggest that enacting the measures, which fund hundreds of government programs, could prove almost as contentious as the battle over the budget accord itself. And since the deal puts off big deficit cuts until the next century, the current skirmishing may be just a preview of bloody spending wars to come.

Republican budget hawks have their knives out for several programs the Clinton Administration--and business--cherish. What's more, the GOP committee chairmen responsible for guiding spending legislation through Congress will have to battle efforts by their own leaders to foist controversial measures onto the bills. "I've got a tough, long, hot summer ahead of me," sighs House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.).

The recent rancor over an $8.6 billion disaster-relief bill that should have sailed through Congress is a bad omen. The bill was intended to aid flood victims in the Dakotas and Minnesota, and to finance U.S. peacekeeping in Bosnia. But GOP leaders insisted on attaching two unrelated provisions. One would block a government shutdown if Congress fails to pass spending bills by Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year, by continuing funding--but at levels lower than Clinton wants. The other would bar the Census Bureau from using statistical sampling for the 2000 census, which Republicans fear would increase the count of Democratic-leaning poor people. Clinton vetoed the bill on June 9, forcing the GOP to regroup.

The disaster-relief imbroglio undercut House GOP leaders' pledges this year to loosen their tight rein over committee chairmen. The shutdown and census riders were added over heated objections by Livingston. His Senate counterpart, Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), also prefers stripped-down bills.

But even "clean" spending bills are sure to set off fireworks. While the budget pact obliges Congress to make efforts to shield Head Start and other Clinton priorities from cuts, many Republicans have their scalpels out for other Presidential favorites that have business support, such as the Overseas Private Investment Corp.'s $104 million government subsidy and the Commerce Dept.'s $225 million advanced-technology research program. The GOP's targets total only a few billion dollars, but they're symbols of Big Government to many Republicans. "It's the red meat the GOP tosses to the right wing," scoffs Representative David R. Obey (D-Wis.).

RIDERS. Fights will also erupt over business and GOP-backed riders aimed at reining in some agencies. Fearful that the Occupational Safety & Health Administration's proposed workplace ergonomics rules will be costly and cumbersome, business wants to add a provision postponing the regs to a roughly $285 billion bill to fund the Labor, Health & Human Services and the Education Depts. Corporate reps are also urging the GOP to attach a rider to curb the National Labor Relations Board's powers.

Such fighting will only get more intense by 2000, when the deficit must drop sharply to meet the promised balanced budget by 2002. Whether the GOP leadership can make good on that pledge remains to be seen. After all, many Republicans as well as Democrats are reluctant to slash programs. "There's a lot more support for government services than people had thought," says Stan E. Collender, a budget expert at Burson-Marsteller, a public-relations firm. That's a thought certain to haunt Congress for the next five years.