THIS IS a Congress that, to escape the do-nothing label, has perfected the fake accomplishment. The latest example was last week's House passage of a "final" appropriations bill that Republican leaders said proved their contention that they could, too, fund the government without "raiding" the Social Security surplus. No matter that it makes no difference to Social Security's shaky financial status whether the surplus is used to finance other programs or to pay down debt; the same IOUs are put in the trust fund in either case.
No matter, either, that the Republicans were only able to pull off their magic trick through the massive use of gimmicks whose combined effect is to mask perhaps $30 billion of this fiscal year's spending. The Republicans themselves want the voters to understand that they have been at least as generous as they have been thrifty. They make the point that in many cases they have agreed to spend even more than requested by a president whom they simultaneously denounce as an insatiable spender.
This is a year that began with brave talk by both parties of using projected budget surpluses to "save" both Social Security and Medicare, neither of which is financially secure. Neither party has come up with a plan to save either program. The president made proposals that would do little more than defer Social Security's day of reckoning while compounding Medicare's financial difficulties by adding a prescription drug benefit that almost everyone agrees is as badly needed as it would be costly. The Republicans produced no clear alternatives; no legislation moved. Both houses have likewise made a show of debating campaign finance reform, managed care regulation and gun control, but all three are now in apparent parliamentary limbo.
On the core issues of tax and spend, the Republicans began the year by passing a budget resolution or outline that didn't add up. It offered a large tax cut, to be financed out of a surplus in other than Social Security funds that was little more than an accounting illusion. It would have required spending cuts that neither party was prepared to support. The party's own appropriators and moderates warned that the resolution was unrealistic; they were persuaded to vote for it anyway, as a symbol of unity. They were likewise persuaded to support the ensuing tax cut, on grounds that it, too, was mainly a symbol that the president would instantly veto; still no risk of enactment.
They are now in the process of writing spending bills that breach their own supposed standards. The game, in which the president is joining, is to pretend as long as possible that the breach is not occurring -- no Social Security funds are being used except to pay down debt -- and then to blame the other party. The purposes being served are almost entirely political. Only a handful of substantive issues remain -- the payment of back U.N. dues, other funds for the conduct of foreign policy, some environmental riders on the Interior bill, the District of Columbia budget, which ought not become a hostage to the rest. The president wants more money for teachers and police, but those are largely fights over bragging rights. The big appropriations battles, having to do with somewhat sloppy increases for defense and agriculture particularly, have already been fought.
The two parties, having done nothing to strengthen Social Security, are now engaged in an argument over which is to blame for spending that will do nothing to hurt it. The Republicans refuse even to acknowledge that the spending that they have spent so much of the year trying to obscure has been approved. The truth has no place in any of this.