When the newly elected Republican congressional majority roared into Washington in 1995, the most ardent revolutionaries loudly declared their intention to eliminate the Department of Education. The department's budget that year was $24.4 billion.
This month, as Republicans nervously stepped back from many of their budget disputes with President Clinton, lawmakers approved spending that will give the Education Department $35.6 billion.
Those numbers tell one part of a larger story about perhaps the most seismic event in American politics this decade: the Republican effort to reshape government after winning Congress in 1994. What is going on in Capitol Hill this month is more than just the usual haggling over annual appropriations. It is the latest_and--many on both sides believe--the last_sputtering battle in a five-year war between the GOP majority in Congress and Clinton over federal spending and the role of government in American life.
It is a war that Clinton has won so decisively, at least in the realm of public opinion, that Republicans no longer have a stomach for fighting. Four years ago this week, Republicans shut down the government rather than yield to Clinton. This fall, in their eagerness to avoid being perceived as Draconian opponents of government, they have exceeded budget caps they wrote into law two years ago and broadly accommodated Clinton's spending requests.
But beneath this month's triumphant rhetoric from the White House and congressional Democrats is a more ambiguous reality. Clinton has won the philosophical argument. It turns out Americans do not want a drastically scaled-down government of the sort Republicans promised five years ago. But in winning, Clinton has paid a heavy price in terms of his policy ambitions.
He was forced to embrace Republicans assumptions about the primacy of balanced budgets. And in so doing he dashed his hopes, laid out with clarity in the 1992 campaign, for a renaissance of progressive government with large-scale "investments" on social problems.
Some of Clinton's former top aides acknowledge what current White House officials do not: In his own way, Clinton is emerging from the five-year budget war nearly as frustrated in his ambitions as Republicans are in theirs.
"He has won the battle over priorities," said Leon E. Panetta, Clinton's former White House chief of staff and chief budget negotiator during the budget wars of 1995 and 1996. Even so, he added, "The reason we supported deficit reduction was not as an accountant's game, but as a process that would produce resources the president could direct to the problems of the country."
Yet even in the current climate of budget surpluses that was not anticipated by either Clinton or Republicans five years ago, Clinton "has not had any kind of open running room, he's had to scratch and fight for every inch," Panetta said. "He's left fighting a lot of the same old battles, and although he wins a lot of these battles, it's prevented him from doing a lot of what he would have liked to do."
That analysis is shared by Arne Christenson, who sat on the other side of the negotiating table during the government shutdowns as chief of staff to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). "Changes in budgets tend to occur in lunges, followed by gradual amelioration," he said.
Christenson noted that fiscal 1996 was the only year since 1981, when Ronald Reagan became president, that domestic spending went down. Republicans, he said, are retreating from their fierce stances of the 1995 revolution, but that year's conservative lunge has had longer reverberations. When 1995 started, Clinton and his aides were arguing that it was impossible to balance the budget in less than 10 years, and to do so any faster risked a recession. Only under pressure from the GOP, Christenson said, did Clinton "publicly" embrace "what will probably end up being his greatest policy achievement"--the end of chronic annual deficits.
This fall, Clinton and Congress have agreed on most spending bills but are still working out a knotty dispute over paying back United Nations dues and whether foreign aid for family planning can be linked to restrictions on abortion.
Mostly unnoticed in the skirmishing, however, is the passing of a political era. These annual battles over spending led to two government shutdowns and were defining events of Clinton's presidency.
A year from now, Clinton will have to work with the Republican Congress to pass spending bills, but the race to elect Clinton's successor will command center stage. The budget process will be "background noise," with both parties trying to avoid protracted struggles over fiscal policy, said Edward Gillespie, a Republican political strategist. "This is the last hurrah, and it's a fight that's going to end with a whimper not a bang."
Republicans this year made a calculated decision to choose whimpers over bangs, even if it meant retreating from their own policies. With few exceptions, whenever Clinton succeeded in making a budget item into a public controversy--such as his proposals for more police or more teachers--Republicans decided it was wiser to yield than fight. This fall's approach reflected lessons learned by House Republicans the hard way about the natural advantages a president has in shaping public opinion.
"We've learned that it's nearly impossible to frame the national debate from the lower chamber of the legislative branch," said Gillespie, who worked closely with the House leadership in the early budget wars. He argued that Republicans have prevailed in many of their policy goals, including welfare reform, but acknowledged: "On the spending side, it's been an uphill struggle. The voters are not in a mood of austerity."
White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta said Clinton prevailed when the public realized that the traditionally Republican idea of fiscal discipline was attainable without accepting GOP spending cuts. "The whole 1980s rap about tax-and-spend and deficits has been exploded," he said. "They are left without a rhetorical argument substantively, and without a popular program substantively."
There is glee in the Clinton White House. Commerce Secretary William Daley joked with a White House aide the other day that Republicans have gone from trying to eliminate his department to giving him more than he requested.
Yet if the budget battles are retreating from public consciousness, one legacy of the conflict is likely to have lasting effect on new initiatives--whether spending programs or tax cuts--for years to come. And this transforming change has occurred this year with virtually no debate.
That is the notion that all Social Security revenue should be preserved for the retirement program. In the past, even most backers of a balanced budget said the goal was that the government not spend more money than it takes in, regardless of the revenue source.
Clinton sought to avert a tax cut by arguing that Republicans should "save Social Security first." But even his budget plan would have used Social Security funds heavily for general expenditures over the next decade. Republicans one-upped Clinton by saying that Social Security funds should be kept off limits immediately, an idea Clinton ultimately endorsed.
"This is the most profound fiscal policy shift we've had in the last decade," said Robert D. Reischauer, a budget specialist at the Brookings Institution. It means that whoever wins Congress or the White House in 2000, "The cupboard is going to be pretty bare for at least the next couple years. This is not an environment in which you go out and cover the uninsured or provide a big tax cut," he said.
The competition about preserving Social Security funds has meant that budget debates in an era of flush government coffers resemble those from the era of red ink. "The surplus has become the political equivalent of the deficit," said George Stephanopoulos, who crafted political strategy for Clinton during the government shutdowns.
Liberals are frustrated. The largest spending initiative of Clinton's term will be the $110 billion in increased military spending he proposed earlier this year--a figure Republicans increased. Meanwhile, there are 5 million more people in the country without health insurance now than when Clinton came to office, noted former Clinton labor secretary Robert B. Reich.
Reich said Clinton has been shrewd in countering the Republican assault on government but relatively ineffective in using government to solve big problems. "The fact that one in four children under age 6 lives under the poverty line in a country this rich is a scandal," he said. "Compare the scope of the problem versus the scope of the response."
Panetta sees an additional legacy of five years of budget wars between the parties. "It's come at a large cost to the credibility of government," he said. "The perception is that this is all a political dance between parties, rather than an honest effort to reach agreements on the country's needs."