Richard Reeves

Congress Puts on Its Clown Caps

WASHINGTON -- The circus is back in town. Send in the clowns, 535 members of Congress back from recess, give or take a few. These are "the people," or the people who replaced the people who in the last couple of elections won by saying the only thing we had to fear was government itself.

It turns out that they did not have a clue on how to run or even downsize that government, and now the thing to fear is them -- the congressional class of 1994 and their replacements -- if you can stop laughing at them. Perhaps it doesn't matter, because it is hard to imagine anyone paying attention to what's happening here if he or she is not being paid to watch.

These were the folks, basically conservative Republicans, who were going to make government lean and mean, achieving that task by voting in 1997 for spending limits or "caps" in the federal budget. Now they have a core problem: The caps are unrealistically low and cannot be met unless the Republican majorities in the House and Senate are willing to cut health, education and welfare programs that overwhelming majorities of voters seem to believe are central to the American way of life.

That problem could be solved by eliminating or raising the caps now that there is a significant surplus of government revenues compared with government obligations. But raising the caps -- which restrict non-defense spending by government agencies to $246 billion -- would entail admitting that the Republican leadership (and many Democrats, too) were ignorant in setting the caps in the first place. Rather than do that, the consensus in Congress now is to play "Pretend!"

These, then, are some of the things the Congress -- led by those Republicans, with some cynical help from President Clinton -- has done or is considering doing to try to balance the books and vote a tax cut at the same time, and put most of the existing surplus in what they call "lock boxes" for future Social Security payments.

-- Take $28 billion out of the budget and call it "emergency spending." The most famous program that is now an unforeseen "emergency" is the 2000 census, which costs $4 billion, a project that the republic has been able to do every 10 years all the way back to the 18th century without pretending.

-- How about using $12 billion or more of the projected surpluses from the year 2001 to meet the requirements of fiscal year 2000, which begins in two weeks? But what if there is no 2001 surplus? Oh, that! They can worry about it then.

-- How about saying there are 13 months this fiscal year, which amounts to increasing the budget by 1/12th without admitting it? That one came from the Senate Republican leadership on Monday.

-- Then how about delaying tax credits to poor people, the program politicians here have been trumpeting as part of their scheme to help end welfare as we know it? That one came from House leaders on Tuesday.

"We have sort of bumped into a wall," said one of the principal builders of caps and that wall, Majority Leader Dick Armey. No kidding. Even with conservatives -- the new big spenders -- doing the counting, you can't have it three ways: save, spend and give back.

Armey's boss, at least on paper, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, is on the record as saying: "We intend to stay within the caps. That was a promise we made to the American people."

The promise is going to be broken. "Creative financing" -- a euphemism for lying about where the money is coming from -- is the mood of the Congress. In 11 days, the leaders of the free world, from both sides of the aisle and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, will begin going about the business of telling people the process was honest and aboveboard, that they understand what they are doing, and that the other party should be blamed for it.

In the words of an offshore observer, The Economist from London: "The result is an absurd combination of creative accounting, pointless penny-pinching and helpless inaction."

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