CONGRESS SO thoroughly trashed its own supposed budget standards this year as to leave unclear what the definition of fiscal discipline will be in the election year ahead. The appropriations caps by means of which the president and both congressional parties pretended to balance the budget in 1997 remain the prime example.
They were never realistic. Neither party was prepared to vote, except in the abstract, for the deep cuts in most domestic spending programs they implied. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Congress exceeded this year's cap by about $35 billion. If anything, that estimate is low -- it doesn't take full account of all the gimmicks used.
The cap next year will be even tighter. If Congress does no more than increase this year's spending by the rate of inflation -- a neutral assumption, in that, in real terms, the government would neither shrink nor grow -- it will overshoot the target by more than $50 billion. To get down to the cap would require about an 8 percent cut. If defense were exempted and domestic programs had to bear the full burden, the cut would have to be about twice that. It isn't going to happen. So much for the caps.
So much, also, for the projected surplus in other than Social Security funds, which the parties and their presidential candidates already have spent so many times over. Most of the surplus only materializes if the spending cuts implied by the caps are made. No cuts, and the budget tightens up again -- unless, of course, they agree to use some of the Social Security surplus to finance other governmental programs.
That was the second line of the defense in the year just past. At least they'd do that, both parties said -- use the Social Security surplus to pay down debt, and force the rest of government to live within its means. They made a great show of having achieved that objective, but they did even that only by relying heavily on fanciful accounting. The economy may bail them out; in the next month or so, CBO is expected to revise its revenue estimate for this fiscal year upward.
But even with the revisions, next year will again be tight if they propose not to touch the Social Security surplus. Both parties will be faced in a high-stakes election year with a zero-sum game in which any sizable tax cut or spending increase will have to be offset -- unless, of course, they plunge once again into gimmickry.
Bet on the gimmicks. This year they met their target by moving some spending into next fiscal year. As this year winds down and they need extra room in next year's budget, they'll move the spending back. All manner of ordinary spending will once again be deemed "emergency," which under the budget rules (but not in the real world) means it doesn't count. Election-year proposals will be heavily backloaded to mask their true cost. It's a world in which the truth is what they say it is, and no assertion has to live beyond Election Day.