Parents often tell the story of the person who is finally granted a devoutly desired wish and discovers that the thing hoped for causes nothing but trouble. Be careful what you wish for.
This city is in one of its strangest seasons on record because the budget surplus everyone wanted is driving everyone nuts. The Republican leaders in Congress are pushed to near paralysis by a fear and a hope. Their fear is that President Clinton will outsmart them on budget issues, as he has so often in the past. Their hope is that George W. Bush will win in 2000, sweep in a Republican Congress, and make everything dandy.
The symptoms of trouble are everywhere. A month or so ago, a big tax cut was to be the jewel of the GOP's tenure. House Speaker Dennis Hastert told his fellow Republicans that his leadership would be crippled if they didn't produce a majority for a tax bill many Republicans thought was too big.
But even as the Republicans send their bill to Clinton's desk for a certain veto, their leaders are backing away from a fight on its behalf -- and even from a quest for a compromise. "We're not prepared to let the president give us sort of a half-baked tax bill in exchange for an increase in spending," Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, the House majority leader, told reporters. At a private Republican conference on Tuesday, one House member said, the talk was about passing appropriations bills, not about a strategy for cutting taxes.
Democrats are clucking with glee. "Last month, Hastert's speakership was riding on the big tax cut," says Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster. "This month, they're saying, `Never mind.' "
Then came word that Senate Republicans were thinking of adding a 13th month to the fiscal year to make the budget numbers come out right. What's an extra month among friends? "We may go to 15 months if that's what it takes to get out of town," jokes Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.)
In fairness, the gimmick some Senate Republicans were proposing -- it's called "advanced funding" -- has been used in the past to get out of other budget tight spots. But gimmicks were at least understandable if not laudable in times of high deficits. Why does Congress need gimmicks when we're supposed to be running a surplus?
That's where the fear of Clinton comes in. "Despite Clinton's problems, we've never been able to outsnooker him on this stuff," Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) said in an interview. "We're a little adrift right now."
Both Congress and the White House are also terrified of being blamed for "dipping into" the Social Security surplus to balance the budget. The fact that Congress dipped into that surplus for years is now irrelevant. Declaring the Social Security surplus off-limits has become the symbolic issue on which everyone -- including Clinton -- promises a fight to the death, even if that means contorting the balance sheets in ways that would drive the average accountant to an asylum. "For lack of other things to talk about, that has become the number one commandment," says LaHood. "We are being consumed by it."
As for the tax cut, rank-and-file Republicans are all over the lot, a big problem because their House majority is so slim. LaHood, for example, would break the tax cut into smaller chunks and send popular pieces to the president. Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), suggests sitting back, holding on to the possibility of a tax cut as both a goal and a lever in the coming budget negotiations with the president.
But while Camp said he ran into much sentiment in his district this summer for cutting taxes, LaHood and Souder -- both of them supporters of tax reduction -- heard little. "The problem we're hearing back home is that nobody believes the surpluses are going to be real," says Souder. The very mistrust of Washington that helped Republicans at the beginning of Clinton's term is now working against them.
In truth, almost all the constraints on reaching a plausible and timely budget settlement are symbolic, not substantive. No one wants to be blamed for taking money from a Social Security fund that was never sacrosanct until now. Nobody wants to be the first to break spending "caps" enacted two years ago -- even though almost every member of both parties concedes they are unrealistic.
And so Washington drifts into a symbolic crisis that may be the permanent state of government until November 2000, when voters will judge this mess and, perhaps, give their representatives more definitive marching orders.