Required by Congress to make spending cuts he didn't want, President Clinton has decided to trim $478 million from hundreds of pet projects championed by various House and Senate members, including a 5 percent whack at a military ship dear to the Senate majority leader.
Administration officials say they did not take undue aim at such projects in deciding how to reach the $2.3 billion in federal spending cuts required by a hard-fought budget agreement last fall. But one top White House official said, "I'm sure there will be inquiries" by legislators displeased that a favorite project got nicked.
Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, are planning hearings to question agency chiefs about possible waste and fraud in their budgets. The two developments suggest a new round of budgetary skirmishes between the Clinton administration and the GOP-controlled Congress, whose 1999 relationship was marked by deep divisions over taxing and spending matters.
In coming days, lawmakers will learn which projects the White House has targeted--and which it has spared--to achieve the $2.3 billion in spending cuts. That amounts to 0.38 percent of the federal budget, the sum that Clinton and Congress agreed on last year to end the budget debate and keep the government running.
Congress had approved a 1 percent, across-the-board cut. But Clinton vetoed it, denouncing across-the-board cuts as indiscriminate, unthinking and harmful. The eventual agreement gave the administration flexibility in cutting spending by 0.38 percent in each agency, although putting a 15 percent ceiling on cuts in any single program.
White House budget director Jack Lew said last week that in addition to the $478 million from 2,372 programs earmarked--that is, mandated--by Congress, the president would cut $192 million from "salaries and expenses" and $1.7 billion from general programs, including grants to state and local governments. Most of the "earmarked" projects will be cut by about 8 percent, Lew said, although some will be untouched and some will receive the full 15 percent cut allowed by the agreement.
"We tried to protect the priorities we're fighting for" without concentrating the cuts in any one area, including Congress's pet projects, Lew said. "We tried not to make it punitive. . . . This was not an authority we asked for. But on balance I think the agencies have done a very responsible job" of deciding where to cut.
Lew declined to give details on which congressional pet projects will be trimmed. One White House official, however, said there will be a 5 percent cut in the $375 million project to build a helicopter carrier at Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss. The Pentagon has not requested the carrier, which is championed by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
Lew said few employees will lose their jobs because most of the salary reductions will come from lapsed or unfilled personnel slots. Some high-priority programs will not be cut, he said, including Head Start, childhood immunizations, environmental enforcement and the Secret Service.
Meanwhile, House GOP leaders have disclosed plans for high-profile hearings early this year to force agency heads to defend their budgets and explain why they haven't done more to root out waste, fraud or abuse. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said that, if necessary, Republican leaders and committee chairmen will make on-site inspections to highlight waste in government agencies.
"Now, the heads of the agencies say, 'Oh no, no, no, we're not wasting or abusing the hard-earned income of the American family,' " DeLay said in an interview. "We say nonsense. We know--every American knows--that the money is being wasted."
House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) has instructed his staff to compile reports of the General Accounting Office, inspectors general and other sources documenting billions of dollars in waste and fraud to use as ammunition in the hearings. Those reports show, for example, that the Supplemental Security Income program is losing $1 billion a year to fraud while the Medicare program made $12.6 billion of overpayments in a single year.
"There's still a lot of waste and fraud out there," said Wayne T. Struble, a top aide to Kasich. "For some reason it is no longer on people's radar screen. We're going to try to put it back on."
House Democrats dismissed the campaign as a political stunt.
"If they had wanted to do something on it, they would have given the president more latitude to cut back on some of these earmarks," said Scott Lilly, Democratic staff director on the House Appropriations Committee. He said he doubted the public will show much sympathy if legislators complain about cuts to pet projects.
"I don't think many of these earmarks are very popular or justifiable," he said.
Lilly said the funding reduction for Lott's ship project may add to its eventual cost by delaying completion. "Once you've put the down payment on it," he said, "you're stuck with the project."