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Congressional Chairmen Leery of Budget Caps

The Budget
By Guy Gugliotta and George Hager
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 6, 1999; Page A4

Congressional Republicans have muscled through a budget proposal that sticks to strict spending limits and allows the GOP to cast itself as the guardian of fiscal discipline. But the Republican subcommittee chairmen charged with implementing the plan later this year have a message for their colleagues: It won't work.

Senior appropriators say their leaders have put them in a straitjacket. They must provide large increases to fund GOP priorities in defense and education, absorb huge military emergencies such as Kosovo and still hold overall spending at least $9 billion below last year.

This is a zero-sum game, and appropriators warn that they will have to make drastic, politically dangerous and, some say, unrealistic cuts in beloved projects and programs to make the numbers balance out. Lawmakers may lose the bridges and highway overpasses that ease the path to reelection, the appropriators say. Maintenance at national parks may suffer. Energy research may have to be abandoned, and funding for the National Institutes of Health reduced. The Coast Guard may have to terminate shipbuilding contracts.

Interviews with most of the 26 chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees that fund the federal government revealed widespread doubt that the spending limits can be maintained and exasperation with colleagues who refuse to exceed them even as they demand funding for pet programs and projects.

"There's an awful lot of people around here who don't want to give something to get something," said Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Treasury Department, the Postal Service and numerous White House agencies. "You never say never, if you can't follow through."

"I don't think we can live under these [spending] caps," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

The spending caps apply to $536.3 billion of the $1.7 trillion federal budget, the so-called discretionary funds that pay for the vast government bureaucracy and most of what it does every day, including programs as diverse as energy research, highway building and maintaining U.S. forces in the Balkans. The current caps were imposed in 1997 as part of a strategy for gradually reducing federal spending to bring the budget within balance in five years.

Although the booming economy helped balance the budget four years ahead of schedule, the caps have stayed in place and, indeed, are already proving to be much too tight for lawmakers to live with. Bipartisan pressure for more money last year provoked a showdown in which President Clinton demanded and got more money for his priorities, while Republicans seized the opportunity to add money for theirs.

The result was about $21 billion in "emergency" spending above the 1999 caps -- an embarrassing experience that the GOP has vowed never to repeat.

The Republican leadership is anxious to maintain the high ground in its battle with Clinton over who is the more zealous protector of Social Security; at this point, any spending above the caps would dip into money both parties say should be used for shoring up the massive retirement program.

But many appropriators warn that fiscal purity will ultimately be overwhelmed by the practical reality that both parties want more money and will eventually be willing to bust the caps to get it.

Indeed, the House has already exceeded the caps, passing a bill last month that included $195 million to reimburse the military for hurricane relief in Central America. Appropriators said that was just a harbinger of much more to come. They noted that by sticking with the caps in strict Republican budget proposals approved in March, the GOP is headed down a blind alley.

"This plays into the White House's scheme," said Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the departments of Commerce, Justice and State. Rogers noted that a year-end negotiation like last year's "is the only time" Clinton gets such extraordinary power to dictate to the GOP Congress on spending bills.

A few top appropriators, however, insist that staying below the caps is doable and desirable. "We need this type of discipline," said Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), whose subcommittee provides foreign aid. "If Congress tells me to make reductions in foreign assistance, it's easier for me. I'm not a big proponent of foreign assistance."

Doable or not, the experience promises to be excruciating. Fiscal 2000's $536.3 billion discretionary spending cap is at least $9.6 billion below last year's, according to Congressional Budget Office figures, and may be as much as $25.4 billion less, if emergency spending from last year continues.

Add a proposed $10 billion increase for defense, $3 billion for education, billions more in Senate-approved military pay raises and deployments in the Balkans and elsewhere, and the pain of staying under the cap could quickly become unbearable.

With no other choice for now, appropriators are preparing to draw up bills that comply with the caps, and they are looking at trade-offs their colleagues won't like. It's "like a teeter-totter," said Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), chairman of the House subcommittee on Interior and related agencies. "If education and defense go up, it means less on the other end of the board."

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), whose subcommittee funds the Transportation Department, said the combination of the caps and the GOP budget would leave him about $2.2 billion below the White House request in actual spending. Subcommittee Democrats said compliance would require zeroing out Amtrak, ending plans to modernize air traffic computer systems, canceling all Coast Guard shipbuilding contracts, terminating all 8,500 members of the Coast Guard Reserve and cutting the Coast Guard and FAA operating budgets by 11 percent.

"It'll be terrible," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), Shelby's House Appropriations counterpart. "You would end Amtrak, and you would pretty much devastate the Coast Guard."

Regula turns to legislative triage to cope with difficult times. First come "must do" priorities -- "We've got to keep the national parks open," he said. Next is "need to do" -- clearing the backlog of maintenance at the parks.

"And then there's 'nice to do' -- build a visitors' center, or acquire a piece of land," Regula said. With the caps, "nice to dos" are gone, he said, and maintenance may have to wait.

Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), Regula's Senate counterpart, likes to fund special projects and notes that "I am clearly the most popular man in the Senate when my subcommittee is meeting."

He worries about the future of Philadelphia's Independence Mall, "a great, great idea" and a personal favorite. Regula likes fossil fuels research and bemoans the possible future of a $100 million Energy Department joint project with automakers to develop an 80 miles-per-gallon car.

For House energy and water subcommittee Chairman Ron Packard (R-Calif.), the caps mean the government probably will not be funding any new dams or environmental restoration projects, both of them perennial favorites of members.

Also at risk, Packard said, are little-known but very important programs like the purchase and disposal of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium from foreign countries so the material won't fall into the wrong hands. "We may not be able to fund all of that," Packard said.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee on labor, health and human services and education, worries about the National Institutes of Health, for him "the No. 1 item" in a budget that exceeds $60 billion. "You get more results from NIH funding than anything else," Specter said. Stem cell research, he said, could cure Parkinson's disease "within 10 years," and he is "determined to raise NIH by $2 billion," caps or no caps.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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