House conservatives have become the Buffalo Bills of Congress. Like the NFL team in the early 1990s, members of the House Conservative Action Team frequently win in the regular season during initial debate on the annual appropriations measures. But like the Bills, when it comes to the Super Bowl--the end-of-session budget negotiations--the CATs get whopped.
The same result seems certain to play out in coming days. All told, the final fiscal 2001 appropriations bills are expected to allow tens of billions of dollars more in federal spending than belt-tightening conservative Republican lawmakers would like.
Congressional Republican leaders already plan to disregard the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, which called for a total of $585 billion in discretionary spending in fiscal 2001. They also are prepared to spend more than the $601 billion called for in this spring's congressional budget resolution. It appears that they are instead poised to agree to something closer to $624 billion, the amount that President Clinton has requested.
The CATs, for their part, seem somewhat resigned to the obvious. The approximately 50-member group of Republican lawmakers has become more pragmatic since its party first took over control of Congress in 1995. The CATs acknowledge that the appropriations bills are largely beyond their control once the bills leave the House. The Senate typically has been willing to spend more than the House, and House-Senate conference committees also often add extra money to the bills.
It is precisely at this time of the year--when congressional leaders and the White House cut deals, and bipartisan majorities in both chambers approve them in order to leave town--that the conservatives feel the most helpless. In the up-or-down vote on the final omnibus appropriations bill, few lawmakers are willing to vote "no" and risk shutting down the government or postponing Congress's adjournment.
"There's no opportunity to fight," complained Rep. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who has led the CATs' appropriations battle during the past few years but is retiring after this Congress. "You can't modify conference reports. You can just vote against them." Coburn, nevertheless, contended that "there's plenty of fight left in the conservatives. No one should misconstrue that."
Conservatives place the blame in a lot of places--the appropriators, the Senate, and, of course, the White House. Coburn, in a recent interview, grumbled about the Senate. "We've passed our bills close to the [spending levels in the] budget resolution," he said of the House. "It's claimed [that the Senate] is in Republican hands, but it's not. It's in the moderates' or liberals' hands."
Some Senators, of course, take exception to such statements. "I think there's enough blame to go around," said conservative Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., who contended that House and Senate appropriators on both sides of the aisle are guilty of larding up spending bills. "If someone starts slipping in projects, then everyone starts slipping in projects."
Added Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has long condemned 'pork' projects: "Both houses are equal-opportunity abusers." While House conservatives have not railed against the appropriators this year, McCain has. "Unfortunately, each year I am constantly amazed how the appropriators find new ways to violate budget policy," McCain complained during a recent Senate floor speech. "Appropriators have employed every sidestepping method in the book to circumvent Senate rules and common budget principles that are supposed to strictly guide the appropriations process."
However, another CATs member, Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., blamed the annual spend-a-thons on the President, who holds great leverage in determining the outcome of each fall showdown. "You can't lead the country from the Congress," Shadegg said. "If the President wants to spend and you have the money, you will spend. If Al Gore is elected, we're going to spend more. The only hope to stop the spending is to elect George W. Bush."
But one key conservative said some of the blame lies with the conservatives themselves. "We in the conservative movement have not articulated the case for limited government," said Rep. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., who is expected to take over Coburn's job as appropriations watcher for the CATs.
For years, conservatives argued that government spending, because of the huge federal deficit, should not increase. Once the deficit was eliminated and big surpluses materialized, conservatives tried to make the case, with some success, that Social Security must be protected from budget raids. But, in Toomey's view, "we have not made the case for not spending everything else." He said the key now for conservatives is to convince people that the government should be smaller simply because the federal role should be limited.
Since the passage of the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, House conservatives have had an on-again, off-again relationship with their Republican leadership. In most years, GOP leaders have at least initially tried to satisfy some of the CATs' demands for fiscal discipline--to the chagrin of the appropriators--when the House is drafting its spending bills. But during the end game each fall, GOP leaders have often used accounting gimmicks to give the appearance of sticking to the tight spending caps mandated in the 1997 law, while actually evading them.
"I think our leadership has done the best we can," Shadegg said. "Our leadership has tried to restrain spending and it simply cannot."
Republican leaders promised the CATs and other lawmakers that they would not resort to accounting gimmicks this year. So the final omnibus appropriations bill that is passed this fall is expected to include a provision formally raising the 1997 budget caps. Many conservatives will probably go along grudgingly.
As Congress winds down, the real question is what impact, if any, a huge increase in spending will have on the election. In the fall of 1998, congressional Republicans caved in to many of the President's demands to fund his priorities. As a result, spending grew, and the GOP lost five seats in the House. Some conservatives have warned that a similar spending spree could upset the Republicans' conservative base.
So to shore up support among their party's base this campaign season, Republican lawmakers in September seized upon a strategy of pledging to set aside 90 percent of the budget surplus to reduce the federal debt and 10 percent for tax cuts and spending. "We set the 90-10 wall," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas. "We think conservatives across the country appreciate that."
In a statement, Armey added: "We have new budget discipline better than I've ever seen in Washington. We're operating at a higher level of budget rigor than ever before. I think the public respects the fact that we're flush with cash and we have not gone on a spending spree."
Armey and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, recently sent Clinton a letter asking him to endorse the 90-10 plan. Clinton hasn't responded, and the two Republicans are trying to pin part of the blame on Vice President Gore. "When it comes to dealing with the surplus, the Clinton-Gore administration appears to be developing a one-track, spend-it-all agenda," Armey said. "Almost every day, the Clinton-Gore administration asks for more money."
Added DeLay: "Our proposal is the only thing that can stop the frenzy of Washington spending this administration is attempting to inflict on taxpayers. We can't let that happen."
Democrats say that the 90-10 plan may sound impressive in campaign speeches and press releases, but actually provides little assistance to the conservatives who want fiscal restraint.
"While it sounds like a model of budget discipline, it actually would allow huge tax cuts and spending increases both next year and over the next 10 years that jeopardize our efforts to eliminate the debt," said Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., D-S.C., the Budget Committee's ranking member, in a letter to House Democrats.
Toomey said he believes that Republicans have accomplished enough during the 106th Congress that their base will not be upset with the last-minute deals cut with the Administration on the appropriations bills.
"There are a lot of reasons for conservatives to say Republicans have done a lot of good things," he said. "We're certainly in better shape than if the Democrats were in charge."
But asked if the Republicans' congressional majorities could be at risk if they spend their way out of town, Shadegg responded: "If the President can successfully make the case that we're responsible for spending, then yes. If we are successful in making the case that he's the one doing the spending, then no."