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Election year spurs spending by Congress

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- The federal budget keeps sinking deeper into the red, but all over Washington, policymakers still are spending with abandon.

Despite tough talk from President Bush about holding the line on spending, Congress is showing no willingness to do so in an election year. The administration, which has agreed to huge new expenditures to prop up the farm economy and implement Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut, is having little luck persuading lawmakers to sacrifice their priorities.

And, budget-watchers say, the president has been just as happy to spend as those on Capitol Hill. He has sought, and received, major funding increases for defense and homeland security, priorities that few policymakers have questioned.

"It's a spending spree, and most of it is agreed on," says Robert Bixby, executive director of the fiscally conservative Concord Coalition.

But because this is an election year -- a time when Republicans and Democrats are eager to highlight differences between them and still bring federal dollars to their districts -- the spree looks more like a struggle. The White House is drawing a hard line on congressional spending, and Capitol Hill is striving to defend its right to control the purse strings.

Bush and his administration appear to be winning. Congress is expected to pass a $28.9 billion midyear spending bill this week for defense and homeland security. The deal was sealed after a bitter clash between the White House and congressional leaders in both parties who wanted to spend more.

But the measure still includes congressional priorities with little connection to the war on terrorism or homeland defense, such as $2 million for the construction of a Smithsonian Institution worm-and-insect facility in Suitland, Md., and $2.5 billion for coral reef mapping in Hawaii.

Many of the items are projects lawmakers tuck into spending bills to benefit their states and districts.

Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., White House budget director, said last week that he was reluctantly dropping his resistance to such projects. But, he said, lawmakers, especially Republicans, push such pork-barrel projects at their own peril.

"Republicans correctly see their political fortunes being strengthened by supporting fiscal discipline," Daniels said. They "shouldn't try to buy their way to electoral success through retail pork. It's a losing game."

A measure to fund military construction projects next year provides some prime examples of lawmakers steering federal money to their constituents. Senators added nearly $1 billion for home-state projects at bases throughout the country, including $15 million for a community center at Fort Richardson in Alaska, $12 million for a parking apron at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and $10 million for a storm-water drainage system at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.

In a statement Wednesday, the administration said it opposes the measure because it exceeds Bush's request.

These tensions are certain to continue as Congress toils to pass the 13 annual spending bills that will fund the government for the budget year that begins Oct. 1. Most believe the endgame will eventually involve a broad agreement to spend freely, born of political necessity and institutional habit.

"Part of what's going on here is election-year bravado," Bixby said. "It's important for the White House to show that they're making a stand for fiscal discipline."

That is especially true now, when defense and security needs have added to the strained federal budget picture, which shows a deficit this year of $165 billion, according to the latest White House estimate.

Bush is insisting that Congress stay within an overall fiscal 2003 spending limit of $759 billion, the amount the Republican-led House approved in a budget resolution. But the Senate, which is led by Democrats and has not approved a budget blueprint, has set a limit of $768 billion. And the major spending bills the House has passed also have exceeded Bush's request.

"They feel they have to draw the line somewhere," Bixby said of Bush and his deputies.

And the somewhere, lawmakers note, is right in Congress' back yard. The Bush administration, despite its willingness to embrace expensive initiatives, wants Congress to control its appetite for spending on lawmakers' projects and priorities.

"The only things that people can take their frustrations out on is the discretionary spending, when it's the entitlements that are the problem," said Rep. Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican.

Discretionary spending is the portion of spending that Congress controls -- it accounts for about a third of federal spending -- and the rest is mandatory money for programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

"Then, when we as members support projects and things that are important for our constituents, it's the administration playing, supposedly, the role of tough guy -- not with a lot of credibility," Kolbe added.

Experts say the tension is more than a simple matter of spenders vs. savers.

"Nobody's gone on an austerity drive," said Allen Schick, a University of Maryland public policy professor. "I see the president saying, 'My spending is OK, and yours isn't," and lawmakers "aren't buying that."

Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia says the administration is "the biggest spender of all. ... Hands down."

"We don't take orders from any administration -- Democrat or Republican," said Byrd, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "We have an allegiance to the people, and the people have needs."

Republicans say they are equally offended by Bush's stance. "The budget director's only concerned about numbers; Congress has to be concerned about what does the country get for those numbers," said Republican Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Florida, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

"I think that they're being so penny-pinching that they're jeopardizing important priorities, including homeland security," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said of White House officials. Mikulski is chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds the departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development.

Many budget-watchers expect the White House to continue fighting excessive spending until the very end of the budget process -- perhaps after the November elections -- and then acquiesce, blaming Democrats for the inevitable spending spree.

"The White House wants to be seen as fighting the big-spending, liberal Senate Democrats; they're less concerned about individual fallout in one district or another," said Bixby, of the Concord Coalition.

Budget Director Daniels noted last week that spreading projects around can be "the price of doing business" with Congress. It is unlikely that the White House would block items that could benefit individual Republicans who face especially tough re-election contests.

"They're probably figuring that [Congress will] get that stuff anyway," Bixby said. "It's kind of like a 'Look, Ma, no hands' approach. Presidents do these things."

The approach is a familiar one to those who have watched the annual federal spending process. Early in the spending season, Congress writes and the White House enacts bills that exceed the administration's budget plan, leaving inadequate resources later in the year for larger bills such as the one that funds the departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services. The season ends with a broad agreement to spend more than was originally planned to fund such measures.

A small group of House conservatives moved last week to prevent such a process this year. Threatening to block action on other appropriations bills, the conservatives extracted a promise from Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, to vote on the labor, health and education bill earlier in the year.

"All we're saying is, 'Stick with the budget we passed,'" said one of the conservatives, Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican. "I think the leadership truly wants to hold down spending; it's just difficult in this environment."

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