- The Washington Times - Friday, September 27, 2002

Fiscal 2003 begins Oct. 1, but Congress will once again fail to meet the deadline for passing the 13 spending bills required to fund the government. In fact, none will be passed before Oct. 1. Congress routinely misses deadlines and fails to meet its own spending targets.

When revenues are flooding Washington, as they were during the second half of the 1990s, spending restraint may be difficult to enforce. Ignoring discretionary spending caps and other budget-enforcement rules became a bipartisan ritual, as members of both parties rushed to earmark seemingly countless appropriations for the benefit of the folks back home. But the bursting of the stock market bubble in 2000, the onset of the 2001 recession and long-overdue tax-relief legislation combined to close the revenue floodgates.

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan emphasized the need for spending restraint in recent congressional testimony. "The commitment to fiscal responsibility that served us so well [between 1990 and 1998] must now be re-established," Mr. Greenspan argued earlier this month.

Congress can begin by prioritizing. As both chambers prepare to debate a war-authorization resolution, their conferees ought to expeditiously pass the defense appropriations bill, which the House initially approved on June 27 and the Senate passed on Aug. 1. The military construction spending bill, passed in June by the House and in July by the Senate, should be next in line. The House speaker's office expects both bills to pass by Oct. 11, when Congress is expected to adjourn for midterm elections. That deadline needs to be met.

The other spending bills are far more problematic, especially the behemoth labor-health and human services-education bill. Historically, Labor-HHS has been among the last spending bills to be passed, mopping up billions of extra dollars as Congress dashes for the exits. This year, conservative Republicans in the House, seeking to enforce the White House-endorsed Labor-HHS spending limit of $130 billion, obtained a commitment from House Speaker Dennis Hastert to put that bill closer to the front of the line. The problem is that there aren't enough votes in the House to pass Labor-HHS at the $130 billion level.

Moreover, even if the House were to meet that level, its target would almost certainly be overtaken by a more expensive measure passed in the Democrat-controlled Senate, which has been especially irresponsible this year. Indeed, one indication of the overall budgetary chaos on Capitol Hill is the fact that the Senate has been unable ever to pass a budget resolution, the first time either body has failed to meet that absolutely minimal budget goal since Congress reformed the budget process more than a quarter-century ago.

However the Labor-HHS imbroglio eventually plays out, of immediate concern is how Congress handles a future temporary spending bill scheduled to take effect after Oct. 11. For good reason, the White House worries that Congress will use this continuing resolution or a subsequent unwieldy measure as a magnet for greater spending. Cognizant of what happened at the end of President Clinton's term, President Bush has called for a "clean" temporary spending bill. His concern deserves to be taken seriously. In late December 2000, after passing more than 20 temporary funding bills while negotiating with Mr. Clinton over nearly three months following the beginning of the fiscal year, Congress ultimately passed a 2,080-page omnibus spending bill. That bipartisan budget fiasco comprised nine separate appropriations; contained more than 6,000 earmarks for $15 billion in projects the president had not requested; and exceeded Congress' own budget by nearly $40 billion. A repeat performance must be avoided.

Even as it deals with the approaching budgetary train wreck for fiscal 2003, Congress needs to look to the future. Important budget-enforcement mechanisms, such as discretionary spending caps and the "pay-as-you-go" (PAYGO) provision, which were initially passed in 1990, are scheduled to expire Sept. 30. The White House has endorsed extending discretionary spending caps for another five years. (Adding teeth to them now seems necessary in the wake of their rampant violation since 1998.) The White House also seeks to extend the PAYGO enforcement mechanism, which requires that legislation to create or expand an entitlement program (e.g., Medicare) or to reduce taxes be offset by other legislation to reduce mandatory spending or to increase receipts. Senate Democratic leaders have said they would be willing to pass a stand-alone bill to extend these budget-enforcement mechanisms. The White House should take them up on their offer.

As the budget process implodes before our eyes in a pre- and post-election spending orgy, extending and reinforcing budget-enforcement mechanisms scheduled to expire on Sept. 30 might at least offer the financial markets a ray of hope for the future. Without their extension and with the approach of war, all fiscal bets are off.

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