Budget Surplus Culture Shock
By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs
So dismal and dank is the typical Washington winter, that Congress hibernates every year until the ides of March. That's why Beltway denizens yawned when Democrats issued dire warnings of a government shutdown, should zealous Republicans proceed with impeachment. To the cognoscenti it was just political hype. That's not to say that everyone in Washington takes a two-month nap beginning January 1. Hill staffers meticulously draft bills for their bosses to submit. And at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, moles with the green eye shades toil away at the budget due the first Monday in February. But Congress really doesn't get down to serious business until the scent of cherry blossoms fills the air. That's why, away from the unrelenting squawking on tabloid television, you could hardly tell that the Senate was paralyzed by the trial of the century.
Still, impeachment creates an aura of surrealism in a city that places a premium on habitual behavior, however unconventional. Even by Washington standards, the House scene on January 19 was bizarre. Here was the President delivering his State of the Union Address to a captive audience of accusers and jurors charged with determining whether he would finish out his elected term. Should they punctuate his speech with applause when it was his due or scowl perpetually for the prowling cameras? It was a tough call.
Even the $1.88 trillion Presidential budget, which landed with a thud on the steps of the Capitol on February 1, couldn't command top billing. It had to compete for prime-time coverage with conjectures about Monica Lewinsky's video-taped deposition. Nary a mention of the 4.2 percent increase for basic research. A few weeks earlier, the White House had tacitly abandoned its support of the ABM Treaty in favor of a National Missile Defense System. No headlines!
As the Senate lurched toward its impeachment finale, no one doubted the result. But what would come afterward was anybody's guess, particularly when it involved the federal budget. The knee-jerk GOP reaction to the President's February 1 spending plan was derision. No news there. When the Democrats held sway on Capitol Hill, that's how they responded to every Republican presidential budget. But cut through the expected partisan rhetoric and you find politicians who are in culture shock. Weaned on decades of federal deficits, they must now confront an estimated surplus of $117 billion for FY 2000 and a staggering projection of $393 billion for FY 2009 — no error bars given.
Despite it's sturm und drang reputation, Washington is notorious for its inertia. Only six years ago the federal budget was $290 billion. Dealing with that kind of swing is tougher than turning around the QE2. So in response to President Clinton's plan to fence off the six-percent surplus for Social Security, congressional Republicans predictably called for across-the-board tax cuts and more defense spending, while liberal Democrats just as predictably advocated more money for social programs. But except for paying down the national debt or investing in Social Security, the Balanced Budget Agreement puts the surplus off limits. The only way around the constraint is a new agreement. Here's a possible compromise: $50 billion for Social Security, $10 billion for defense, $10 billion for civilian programs, $30 billion for tax cuts and the balance to begin paying down the debt. Pretty neat. All it requires is bipartisan action. And if the science community speaks out, research might even get a nifty boost. We'll see.
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