Budget cutting wavers when pork is on the block

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- The Republican drive to balance the budget is colliding with conflicting spending priorities within GOP ranks and the impulse to protect pet projects.

So far, lawmakers crafting the 13 spending bills that will translate the GOP budget objectives into specific cuts are meeting their roughly $22 billion first-year targets for wiping out the budget deficit by 2002.

Total spending for the budget year will be about $1.5 trillion, similar to the current year's budget instead of the usual annual growth of 5 percent or more. The $22 billion in cuts is a little more than 1 percent of the total.

Measures moving through House committees and being debated on the House floor slash scores of federal programs by half or more.

In many cases, though, the Republicans are shifting money cut from programs favored by President Clinton and the Democrats, such as education, housing and the environment, to such GOP priorities as military spending and corporate subsidies.

The Republicans are withholding the budget knife from spending items favored by key GOP leaders. One example is the $23 million Selective Service System, rescued last week by Rules Committee Chairman Gerald B. H. Solomon, though the draft is long gone.

And Republicans are still filling the larder with the classic hometown pork barrel goodies such as roads, bridges and airports that have been the political currency of Congress since the nation was founded.

"This budget is loaded with Republican pork," said Rep. Mark W. Neumann, a freshman Republican from Wisconsin who leads a band of insurgents seeking greater savings. "It does us no good to cut one place if we're just going to turn around and spend it somewhere else."

As part of their anti-government revolution, the Republicans are also using their new power over the purse to change federal policy along ideological lines. For example, they have cut money used to enforce the Clean Water and Endangered Species acts, which they say infringe on private property rights.

House Republicans voted last week to scrap a new Maryland headquarters for the Food and Drug Administration because they want to dismantle that regulatory agency, which is threatening curbs on cigarette sales and thus profits in the tobacco industry.

"They are rewarding the special interests and venting their ideological spleen," protested Rep. David R. Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat.

Yet the Republicans are pulling punches on such longtime targets as public broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Some of these traditionally Democratic programs -- which have strong constituent support in some Republican districts -- are sharply trimmed but not "pulled out by the root," as Rep. Robert L. Livingston Jr., the Louisiana Republican who leads the House Appropriations committee, had earlier promised.

Gingrich speaks for animals

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, leader of the GOP budget-balancing revolution, even made a rare appearance on the House floor last week to plead with his colleagues not to cut an $800,000 appropriation to help save African elephants, tigers and rhinoceroses from extinction.

It fell to a conservative Democratic penny-pincher, Rep. Charles W. Stenholm of Texas, to make the argument usually advanced by Republicans -- that such charitable efforts should depend on private contributions until the federal government gets its fiscal house in order.

"If I thought this was the high-water mark of what they're going to do, I'd be tearing out my hair," said David Mason, director of a congressional assessment project for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank working closely with the Republican leadership.

In fact, the $22 billion worth of cuts from spending on general government programs for next year now being made by the House in the individual spending bills may well be the high-water mark of the belt-tightening process for this year.

Tougher job is ahead

The largest, toughest part of the GOP task will come later this year with proposals to cut Medicare and Medicaid, health care programs that make up the fastest-growing portion of the federal budget and are expected to contribute nearly half the savings required to balance the budget.

Moreover, this year's is but a first installment on a total of $190 billion that must be squeezed from the same categories during the next seven years if the balanced budget goal is to be met.

The appropriations bills being debated probably offer the best test of the GOP promise to change the way business is done in Washington.

Those bills allow lawmakers item-by-item control over huge categories of spending and have traditionally been the vehicle by which members of Congress bring home the bacon to their constituents. The Republicans' ability to hold the line now will likely dictate how successful they will be in sticking with their goal of a zero deficit in the even tougher years ahead.

Typically, the House has much greater discipline than the Senate, which is expected to moderate many of the bolder House cuts.

"The fact is, Republicans in both the House and the Senate have proven to be enthusiastic and voracious pork producers," Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, said Thursday. He contended that the Republicans have backed off earlier efforts to give President Clinton veto power over separate spending items simply to protect the "gravy train."

Mr. Dorgan spoke shortly after the Senate Appropriations Committee followed the House lead and added $461 million to a military construction spending bill for special projects in the home states of committee members -- Democrats as well as Republicans.

"It's not pork; it's hypocrisy," said Robert W. Gaskin, vice president for policy of the Business Executives for National Security, a nonprofit group that monitors defense spending. "The Republicans promised to end congressional welfare, but they're adding on spending projects just exactly the way the Democrats did."

Even so, the Republicans are hitting their spending cut targets. They're doing it by taking dead aim at nearly all the top priorities of Democratic presidents from Lyndon B. Johnson through Bill Clinton.

"The Republicans are proposing the most dramatic changes ever made in the history of this country," said House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.

He cited a list that cuts federal housing programs by half, eliminates family-planning money and heating assistance for the aged poor, wipes out Mr. Clinton's Americorps volunteer program, kills the America 2000 standards program for public schools, and makes the first cuts ever in Head Start -- the preschool program that is considered the most successful of Johnson's Great Society legacy.

Far-reaching consequences

The policy changes made beyond simple belt-tightening also have enormous consequences for environmental standards, safety standards, labor and consumer protections -- many of which would be voided for lack of enforcement funds.

"They think everything that protects the environment is too much big government, too anti-business, too intrusive on property rights," asserted Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a moderate Republican from Maryland's Eastern Shore, who wages almost daily battles on the House floor to try to soften the blows to environmental programs. "It's staggering, what they're trying to do."

But try as they might, the Republican leaders are not able to keep their team quite on track.

When conservative Republicans joined with Democrats to try to cut funds for science research programs favored by House Science Committee Chairman Robert S. Walker of Pennsylvania, he protested -- much as Speaker Gingrich had -- of "mindless cannibalism."

"This is not exactly the pure Republican revolution some had hoped," acknowledged Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Republican Conference. "There is still a lot of disagreement about what the role of government should be. You just can't change Washington overnight."

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