A final accounting of congressional spending this year confirms that Congress blew the fiscal 2000 spending ceiling by $37 billion and in the process heavily relied on the Social Security surplus to help cover the additional spending.
The year-end report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office also warned that if Congress continues to spend at this clip, the surplus both parties are counting on could turn into a deficit the following year, when a new Congress and president take office. Republican presidential front-runner George W. Bush this week unveiled an ambitious $1.1 trillion tax-cut plan for the coming decade solely financed by future surpluses.
CBO officials acknowledged that their relatively grim assessment could brighten dramatically next month when they issue economic and budgetary forecasts based on a steadily improving economy. Congressional Republicans disputed the CBO's findings, saying they haven't touched the Social Security surplus.
But for now, the CBO has concluded that the GOP-led Congress and the Clinton administration have fallen well short of their professed goals of adhering to the spending limitations of the 1997 balanced-budget deal and ending a long-standing practice of using Social Security surpluses to help finance the government's day-to-day operations.
Republican leaders vowed this year to stop the "raid" on Social Security funds and launched a controversial television ad campaign in some congressional districts to attack Democrats on the issue. But, yesterday, the CBO confirmed in its report its earlier warnings that Congress would use $17 billion of the Social Security surplus to help finance fiscal 2000 spending.
"This really bears out what we've been saying since April--that the Republicans are invading Social Security," said Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (S.C.), ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee.
Republicans, who for the first time this year have differed with the CBO and sided with the administration over accounting techniques for tallying spending, insisted that they had kept their pledge. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) issued a statement saying that, according to GOP accounting, "this year's budget will stop the raid on Social Security."
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said in an interview that while "spending is higher" than the limits outlined in the 1997 budget agreement, the appropriations bills adopted by Congress last month prevented Democrats from spending billions more."
"What's important here is we are continuing our fiscal restraint," Delay said.
Still, the new report by CBO Director Dan L. Crippen highlights the extent of political gamesmanship surrounding the budget process: Despite claims to the contrary, Republican leaders and the White House for the past two years have used gimmicks such as declaring the 2000 census an "emergency" to circumvent the spending constraints of the 1997 budget deal.
Yesterday, a top aide to Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) urged the administration to submit a new budget next month that would raise the spending caps to more realistic levels. "We ought to stop kidding ourselves about these caps and just adjust them to reflect reality," said G. William Hoagland.
Spratt agreed that "it's going to be awfully difficult to do a budget next year and adhere to the caps." But a White House official was noncommittal on whether the administration would propose any changes.
The balanced-budget agreement was forged two years ago while the government was still mired in deficits. But a roaring economy subsequently helped to usher in a new era of budget surpluses, and many in both parties are chafing under the constraints of the budget agreement.
The agreement covers roughly a third of the overall budget that finances defense and the general operation of the government. Under the agreement, Congress could spend no more than $579.8 billion in fiscal 2000, according to the CBO's July calculations. By this fall, Congress and the administration had negotiated an agreement calling for $617.2 billion of spending--$37.3 billion above the ceiling. Most of that excess spending was declared "emergency" and exempt from the cap.