CLARIFICATION--An article Tuesday described a plan being promoted by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) that would defer spending on some social programs until the month after next fiscal year ends. While the article accurately described Specter's plan, he has not referred to it as a 13-month budget, as the story suggested. (Published 09/16/1999)

As they struggle to live within tough restrictions on how much they may spend, Senate Republicans have found another creative way to shoehorn popular domestic programs into next year's budget: declaring the coming fiscal year 13 months long instead of the usual 12.

By creating this fictitious 13th month, lawmakers would be able to spend $12 billion to $16 billion more for labor, health, education and social programs than they otherwise would be permitted under budget rules. Because the additional funds would not be technically released until immediately after the fiscal year ends, they would not count against the overall limits on federal spending next year.

"We all know we engage in a lot of smoke and mirrors," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the programs. "But we have to fund education, NIH, worker safety and other programs. It's a question of how we do it."

The proposal -- which has been embraced by Senate leaders -- highlights how difficult it is for congressional Republicans to cut spending and live within tight budgets without resorting to what many experts describe as fiscal gimmickry. With the government awash in surpluses, there is certainly the money to pay for extra programs next year. But to do so would require breaking existing spending limits and, more than likely, dipping into extra money generated by the popular Social Security program -- something both parties have pledged not to touch.

As a result, GOP lawmakers have struggled to find ways of spending money without technically breaking those limits. For instance, lawmakers already have classified spending on farms and the 2000 census as "emergency" spending not subject to existing rules. All told, lawmakers already have exempted nearly $28 billion in proposed spending next year from the existing budget limits.

The 13th-month gambit promoted by Specter has been used before on a smaller scale, but fiscal experts expressed concern that Congress would simply be putting off its day of reckoning by employing it on so large a scale.

"It avoids the problem, it doesn't solve the problem," said Robert Reischauer, former director of the Congressional Budget Office. "We will have spending caps in 2001 and 2002 as well, so all you've done is postponed and magnified the problem."

"They're degrading themselves and degrading the budget process by resorting to these budget gimmicks," added Robert L. Bixby, policy director of the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group.

While it is far from clear whether House Republicans or the White House will go along with the plan, the Senate's so-called "advance funding" proposal underscores lawmakers' desperation in trying to pass the largest and traditionally most contentious spending bill without breaking the budget deal that President Clinton and Congress agreed to in 1997.

Spending in the Labor-Health-Education bill includes funding for health and human services programs, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), job training, Head Start for disadvantaged youth and Pell grants for college students. Last year Congress could not come up with a bill that was acceptable to the administration until the last minute, when GOP leaders and the president negotiated a giant package that included nearly $20 billion of additional spending for domestic programs. GOP leaders felt burned by the arrangement and have vowed to avoid such a deal this year.

Not counting mandatory entitlement programs, spending for Labor-Health-Education programs totals roughly $92 billion this fiscal year. For next year, House leaders have essentially used the Labor-HHS bill as a piggy bank to finance other spending bills and have set aside only $73 billion for the bill itself, a cut of roughly $19 billion. Senate leaders have set aside a little more, $80.4 billion, for those programs.

If such reductions were sustained, House Democrats have warned that across-the-board spending cuts of as much as 32 percent would be required on education programs, Head Start, NIH grants, Job Corps, AIDS research and scores of other programs. Republicans and Democrats alike agree that the bill will have to be beefed up substantially -- probably to this year's levels -- to win passage and the president's signature.

"The bill as it is set up right now falls impossibly short of funding levels that are necessary to ensure even basic services in education, health and labor," said Linda Ricci, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget.

In the House, Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) is leading an effort to try to identify $16 billion or so of offsetting reductions in mandatory programs and other areas to finance the additional Labor-Health-Education programs, but so far he has reported little progress.

Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.), Specter's counterpart on the House Appropriations Committee, has grown frustrated with the process and contends that Congress and the administration must face the reality that the 1997 budget agreement is no longer practical.

"I still believe in the end the caps are going to have to be raised, and the question is whether you do it honestly or whether you put into place all kinds of gimmicks, including emergencies and forward funding and the like," Porter said.

But Specter, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and other Senate leaders see virtue in a budgetary maneuver that would ensure adequate funding for education and other programs next year and that meets the letter -- if not the spirit -- of the budget law. Because the non-Social Security budget surplus is supposed to be even larger in the following year, such a move could also make it easier to finance ongoing government programs without dipping into Social Security reserves.

"If the money can be pushed off to expenditures in 2001, that would give us the latitude of using that year's surplus without breaking the caps," Specter said.