Congress is on a spending binge, throwing pork into the annual appropriations bills, adding entitlement money for the elderly, boosting veterans’ benefits and increasing reimbursements to Medicare providers.
“People have gone crazy,” Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican, said as he left the Senate floor after voting against a fiscal 2001 transportation spending bill that is nearly $2.4 billion more than the president requested.
“If anybody had any doubt about what would happen to the surplus, they now have proof,” Mr. Gramm said.
Rep. Ralph Regula, Ohio Republican, is unapologetic about the spending increases contained in the Interior Department bill he helped shepherd through Congress. He says years of lean budgets meant years of forgone maintenance and neglected repairs.
“There is nothing in this bill I would consider wasteful,” Mr. Regula said.
Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group, disagrees, pointing to $2 million to be spent refurbishing a Birmingham, Ala., monument to steel workers that the city had said just a year ago did not need restoration, and a $5.2 million National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, W.Va., that includes a day care center, a workout room and lodging with living rooms and fireplaces.
Earmarked projects also are being added to the annual spending bills to help struggling candidates.
Last week, Sen. William V. Roth Jr., Delaware Republican, walked into negotiations over the 2001 transportation bill and walked out with funding to remove lead-based paint from Delaware’s St. George Bridge.
Rep. Donald L. Sherwood, Pennsylvania Republican, managed to earmark $8 million in the Interior Department’s 2001 budget to secure a 2.8-million-barrel home-heating-oil reserve for the Northeast.
Both Mr. Roth and Mr. Sherwood are in races considered too close to call.
Lawmakers from both parties have gained projects by sheer effort. Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel, Pennsylvania Democrat, is in a district Republicans are desperate to retake. With a steady barrage, he says, he garnered $10 million to build a major east-west corridor in Norristown, Pa., a hard-struck town on his district’s western edge.
Others win by power. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, intervened in the transportation negotiations to speed up funding for a transit project in Chicago. A $12 million air-traffic system for Houston, hometown of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, suddenly appeared in the final deal, although it had not been mentioned in either the House or Senate versions of the transportation bill.
Still, Republicans blame President Clinton for the overall increase in spending. They say the budget he presented in February increased expectations and made it nearly impossible to say no. Democrats say Republicans are just as happy to lard up bills for their own priorities and are simply using Democrats as a scapegoat.
Spending in 2001 under the 1997 budget agreement for discretionary programs such as defense, transportation, federal parks and the like would have been about $555 billion.
Instead, the total for the 13 annual appropriations bills that have either seen final action or passed the House is at $625 billion about what Mr. Clinton requested in February and rising.
Rep. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, blames the president and Democrats for always wanting to spend more.
Mr. Clinton threatened to veto six of the 13 annual appropriations bills considered by the House this year, in each case citing underfunding as one of his major concerns.
Mr. Coburn says Republicans should have made a better case for budget cuts as a way to reduce the government’s power and influence. Instead, Republicans relied on deficit reduction and securing surpluses generated by Social Security as goals. Now that those goals have been met, people are concluding that the spending can resume.
But Mr. Coburn also points his finger upstream.
“We have to have different leadership to challenge” the president’s requests for spending, Mr. Coburn said. “[Senate Majority Leader Trent] Lott has to do that, and Denny [Hastert] has to do that, and until they do, our children and grandchildren are going to pay the price,” Mr. Coburn said.
Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat, and some Republicans say the blame falls squarely on Republican shoulders. Republican leaders insisted this spring upon a budget blueprint that almost everyone in the GOP from Republican appropriators to Republican leaders knew was unrealistic.
Then to get bills passed by the House and Senate, Republicans began breaking that budget at every step, and the blueprint collapsed, Mr. Obey said.
“Now, it seems, the sky is the limit,” Mr. Obey said.
Sen. Bob Kerrey, Nebraska Democrat, says by far the more disturbing trend is not on discretionary programs, but on entitlements.
Mr. Kerrey, who keeps a running tally on a board in his personal office, says Congress this year has promised to spend at least another $500 billion over the next decade on the elderly.
Someone on his staff erased the board earlier this year, but Mr. Kerrey rewrote the list.
“These are the most important spending decisions Congress has made all year,” Mr. Kerrey said.
Those promises include a prescription drug benefit under Medicare, enhanced veterans’ health care benefits, and a $70 billion “giveback” to Medicare providers.
In contrast, Mr. Kerrey said, “we will be lucky to get legislation passed that will spend only an additional $10 billion on children under the age of 18.”