Will There Be Any Surplus Left To Argue Over?

On the campaign trail and in the Presidential debates, Republican George W. Bush is going all out to brand Vice-President Al Gore as the champion of intrusive Big Government. But if one measure of Big, Bad Government is runaway spending, maybe Bush ought to pay a little more attention to what his fellow party members are doing in Washington. In what some budget experts fear is the greatest collapse of budgetary discipline since the deficit-ridden 1980s, GOP lawmakers are joining Democrats to push through huge increases in discretionary programs. The result: Domestic spending could rise by $35 billion to $50 billion over the congressional budget resolution.

The spectacle is reminiscent of "hyenas at a carcass--except hyenas ultimately get sated," remarks American Enterprise Institute economist Kevin A. Hassett. "It's more like termites, who chew away till the house falls down." At risk is the budget surplus both Bush and Gore are counting on to fund tax cuts and social programs. If the porkathon continues at this rate, the projected 10-year, $2.2 trillion surplus could shrink by $800 billion.

In the fiscal year just ended, programs subject to annual spending bills--so-called discretionary programs such as defense and education--cost about $600 billion. Last spring, Hill Republicans promised to hold them at the same level this year. But in the face of a tough election, the GOP, which criticized the President when he asked for $25 billion more in his budget, is throwing prudence to the wind.

KEEPERS. To put all this in perspective, between fiscal 1993 and fiscal 1997, discretionary spending was effectively frozen at roughly $540 billion. Then starting in fiscal year '98, when Congress realized that the budget would be in surplus, the pigs hit the trough. Barring some last-minute return to fiscal discipline, spending this year will rise by as much as 8%. That amounts to a $100 billion--or 16%--boost over 1998.

Where's all the money going? Much of it is pure pork, argues Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). For instance, he estimates that $400 million of the $18.9 billion Interior Dept. spending bill is dubious--such as $5 million for fish hatcheries in Washington state, where GOP Senator Slade Gorton is in a tough race, and $176,000 for the Reindeer Herders Assn. in Alaska. The Energy & Water spending bill earmarks $1.2 billion for favorite programs like a hydrogen-powered mining locomotive in Nevada. But the winner is the Pentagon, where McCain counts $7 billion in goodies for members' districts. "I am constantly amazed," says the senator.

BAD HABIT. In the House, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is openly showering dollars on endangered GOP incumbents. California's James E. Rogan, for instance, is getting $46 million for roads. But Congress isn't limiting itself to bigger handouts. It's also creating new entitlement programs that amount to a permanent expansion of government's role. On Sept. 30, House and Senate negotiators agreed to create a lifetime guaranteed health benefit for 1.7 million military retirees and their families. Nearly one-third of the benefits would go to ex-officers, many of whom enjoy high-paying second careers after their 20 years of service. The price? Nobody knows for sure, but an earlier version would have cost $60 billion over the next 10 years, reports the Congressional Budget Office.

The spending frenzy could hurt both Bush and Gore. It might make voters even more skeptical that there's enough money to pay for an expensive round of new promises. And come Jan. 20, the lucky winner will face the task of taming a Congress that's grown accustomed to lavish giveaways.

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