Meanwhile, Back on the Hill

Does anybody remember that there's no federal budget?


Budget season for partisans of limited government is like Mother's Day at an orphanage: one really sad time. Given that, it's something of a boon that the presidential election has dominated the D.C. landscape for these past few months. Politicians have been too preoccupied with that snafu to debate how much more government they should be forcing us to buy ourselves.

Not only do we not know who'll be the next president, we don't even know how much money he'll be authorized to spend. There's a simple reason for that: Congress and President Clinton never managed to finish up the annual budget. Since the new federal fiscal year began on October 1, the government has been running on a type of fuel known as Continuing Resolutions, or CRs, which essentially keep the government spending the same amount of money authorized for the prior year.

Though we don't know yet the precise amount for FY2001, you can take one thing to the bank: It'll be much, much more than last year.

"This year's budget is a low point for Republicans," says Stephen Moore, the head of the Club for Growth, a political-action committee dedicated to supporting those rare politicians who say they want to reduce government spending. "We are already way above what we promised to spend in 1997," says Moore, a GOP stalwart. "We've outspent Clinton in three of the last four years."

Moore, of course, is considering the budget in terms of policy. He's looked at appropriation bills in the pending budget, so he knows we're on a path to record levels of spending. "The best of all outcomes would be for a CR for the rest of the year," says Moore. "By my calculation that would save $12 billion" in federal spending over the FY2001.

Indeed, poring over the appropriations bills, one is struck by the bizarre nature of Washington, where words such as "compromise" take on unique meanings. In standard negotiations, compromise entails each party giving up something. In Washington, it means that each side gets more than they wanted. So, for example, when I checked out an analysis of the Interior Appropriations Conference Report, I discovered that the final bill bumps up spending a full 25 percent above current levels-a nice raise in these days of price stability and nervous financial markets. Specifically, it bumps up spending 15 percent more than Clinton requested, 25 percent more than the House passed, and 19 percent more than the Senate passed. The story is the same in almost every appropriation bill.

"Anyone who's committed to smaller government and less spending is always frustrated," says Neil Bradley, executive director of the House Conservative Action Team, a group of House members who actually work to reduce government spending. "Invariably it's always a question of how much more, rather than a question of how much less."

It should come as no surprise that bad policy often makes for good politics. And here even the Club for Growth's Moore is grudgingly complimentary towards congressional Republicans. Says Moore, "They took the budget out of play and held the House and Senate." This is no small feat, considering that a similar situation in 1995 led to the infamous government shutdown, which cost Republicans dearly in the '96 elections. In 1998, congressional leaders bought their way out of town before the election, a betrayal of principle which also cost them at the polls.

"We had to avoid a shutdown because the networks would have announced it was all our fault," says Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform president and a Republican operative. At the same time, he points out, Republicans couldn't afford a replay of '98, where they simply caved into President Clinton's spending requests to avoid a shutdown right before an election.

"If we did that," says Norquist, "our base would have been yelling at us, 'Traitors! Why do we even care if we have a Republican Congress?'" The end result, one that Norquist thinks strengthens the chances for a leaner budget, is that the final vote on spending has been put off until after election this time. What's more, as a lame duck, Clinton should have less power to deal, too.

We'll soon see if Clinton is in fact weaker. In the meantime, I'm partial to Moore's downbeat analysis. The problem, says Moore, is that to hold onto its slim majority, the GOP members on Capitol Hill keep spending lavishly. Grumbles Moore, "It's expensive to have this Republican Congress."