In the quiet of the holiday season, the bittersweet word quietly has spread through Capitol Hill that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) soon will estimate that the non-Social Security budget surplus for the 2001 fiscal year will reach $50 billion and probably climb well over that level -- much larger than the previous forecast of $36 billion.
That is sweet news for Republicans, who no longer have to worry about having broken their pledge in the past congressional session by dipping into $17 billion of funds raised by the Social Security payroll tax. The overflowing pot of money built by the high-powered economy informs supposed conservatives that they can spend to their heart's content. So the forecast of an ever-expanding surplus surprise is also bitter news -- for the same reason.
The $50 billion-plus surplus sounds like the final death knell of the revolution proclaimed by Newt Gingrich and other Republicans when they took control of Congress in 1995. Now there is no need to scale back the size of government for budgetary considerations, and at the same time, there is no desire to trim it for reasons of ideology. Since President Clinton will veto any serious tax cut, why not just spend, spend, spend?
Thus have the chickens come home to roost. Two decades ago, the GOP ignored the admonition by Rep. Jack Kemp of New York that the party should not worship at the shrine of a balanced budget. Kemp was maligned as a "big government conservative," but the real danger was in focusing a great political party on an accounting expression. After the budget is balanced, what does the GOP stand for? Not much.
The problem is that for the past five years, budget-cutting has been largely divorced from ideological content. The 1997 congressional-Clinton agreement guaranteed a balanced budget by enacting strict spending caps. But they were breached in the past year and will be breached again in the new year. There is no desire to try to adhere to these caps when the Treasury is loaded with money.
Rep. John Kasich, entering his last year as House Budget Committee chairman, is determined not to "bust the caps" that he helped to create. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay is calling for recisions of previously approved spending. But they are voices in the night, drowned out by the CBO's happy music.
It is a particularly welcome tune for Republican members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, who managed to play a free hand in the last Congress. While DeLay tried to bring the appropriators under party control, they not only took their $17 billion dip out of the Social Security surplus but exceeded the caps by $33 billion. While defense spending did not rise above the rate of inflation, pork that was earmarked for individual districts has reached new levels.
G. William Hoagland, the veteran staff director of the Senate Budget Committee, estimates that approximately 345 economic development programs are funded by Congress -- more than ever before. These include such hoary mastodons as urban renewal, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Tennessee Valley Authority but also many new programs that are individually protected by members of Congress.
The new surplus estimate was not the only economic news during the holiday interlude. Word has come from the White House that the president will package his $300 billion in targeted tax cuts spread over the next 10 years. That does not make so much as a nick in the revenues being thrown off by overtaxation, and the rest is up for spending.
The newly estimated $50 billion surplus for FY '01 projects more than $1 trillion in surplus for the next decade. The significance of this does not seem to have been recognized by the leading Republican candidates for president -- George W. Bush and John McCain. Both are cautious (McCain much more cautious) in proposing tax reduction.
Without Reaganesque tax reduction, the huge budget deficit is an invitation to spend. The new CBO surplus estimate is an irresistible temptation for Republicans to retain and indeed expand the federal Leviathan. After all, isn't the budget balanced?