IT IS FITTING that this legislative year should end with an almost imperceptible across-the-board spending cut that will not be across the board. It is hard to think of a single aspect of the budget that has not been seriously misrepresented in the past nine months of debate. There is always a certain amount of straying from the truth in regard to budgets. This year it has reached Orwellian proportions.
The final agreement on which the House was to vote last night and the Senate thereafter was touted yesterday by both sides as a major achievement. The major achievement consisted of no more than passage six weeks into the fiscal year of the last five of the 13 regular appropriations bills on which the operation of the government depends. Those 13 ordinary bills are the only fiscal accomplishment of a Congress that began with lofty talk on the part of the president as well as the leadership of both parties of solving long-range fiscal problems. They solved none. The only consolation is that, by virtue of incompetence, they managed not to make any seriously worse, either.
The Republicans crow that they came through the year without using the Social Security surplus to help finance the rest of government. But (a) that's a non-accomplishment, in the sense that the same IOUs are put in the trust fund whether the surplus is used to finance other programs or pay down debt. And (b) it didn't happen. They achieved the result on paper only, by use of gimmicks. In some cases, they simply denied that spending for which they voted -- and which they busily called to the voters' attention as evidence of why they should be reelected -- would actually occur. They disappeared it. In other cases, they simply kicked it over into next year. It will hugely compound their problems then. There has been much talk that a new fiscal standard has been obliquely adopted, whereby the rest of government, meaning all but Social Security, will hereafter have to live within its own means. That would be fine with us, but what this year's record suggests is not a new standard to be adhered to so much as a new one to be systematically lied about.
Meanwhile, they did what they always do in writing end-of-session bills. They stuffed it full of goodies, using public funds or power to curry favor with the folks back home. There is fine print in the legislation meant to benefit Sallie Mae, the giant and decidedly non-needy Student Loan Marketing Association; dairy farmers; the recycling industry; transplant surgeons; and who knows who else. Most of these are provisions that, for good reason, could not pass on their own. The president called the agreement a "hard-won victory for the American people." In fact, it's a shabby, showy end to perhaps the least productive, nastiest and most duplicitous session of Congress in modern memory. They should hang their heads as they scurry home.