Budget Battles: Judged by your own standards

Budget Battles: Judged by your own standards

scollender@njdc.com

Years ago I worked for a member of the House of Representatives who positioned herself as being totally above ethical reproach. These were the Watergate years and having the public believe you were pure was important, especially for a member of the Judiciary Committee who was being asked to determine whether the president had maintained an ethical standard high enough to allow him to stay in office.

More than a decade later, when this former boss was running for another office, she was criticized heavily (and her election chances were hurt significantly) over what would have hardly been considered an ethical infraction for any other candidate. The reason was simple: She had so steadfastly maintained her purity that the importance of even a perception of a very minor lapse was greatly magnified.

This story explains much of the reason congressional Republicans are being criticized so heavily for the budget gimmicks they are considering this year: They set themselves up for this over the past five years because of their repeated pledges of budget purity.

This is important. The criticism is not because this is the first time that gimmicks have been used to get around the rules, or that no one else involved in this year's debate is using them. To the contrary, budget tricks have been commonplace for as long as there have been rules; everyone uses them to some extent. But if Republicans are being held to a higher standard on gimmicks than anyone else in history, they have themselves to blame for most of the increased scrutiny they are now receiving

For example, one of the gimmicks Republicans are heavily relying on this year is "directed scorekeeping"-Congress telling the Congressional Budget Office to use Office of Management and Budget estimates in situations where OMB thinks something will cost less than CBO. It now looks like the total amount "saved" in this way could be between $10 billion and $15 billion.

Republicans did not invent directed scorekeeping. However, their use of it this year is inviting extra criticism-both because it is being used to a far greater extent than before, and because they insisted loud and long in 1995 and 1996 that the only trustworthy estimates were those provided by the Congressional Budget Office. "Honest Numbers" became a Republican rallying cry, and House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich, R-Ohio, and many others criticized the White House for not agreeing that CBO rather than OMB should be the basis of any budget discussions.

This year's extensive use of directed scorekeeping and very sharp change in position raises a number of embarrassing questions for the congressional Republican leadership, all of which are being asked. Are Republicans now saying that OMB is more accurate than CBO? If not, why are they telling CBO to use OMB numbers? If so, was the previous Republican insistence on using CBO scoring a mistake? Does the use of directed scorekeeping this year mean that the Clinton administration was correct several years ago when it rejected the congressional call to rely on CBO? How can the current CBO, which is headed by a director who is a Republican and was selected by the Republican leadership, have estimates that are less "honest" than those of the previous CBO, which was headed by a Democrat? Finally, how can congressional Republicans rely on the CBO economic forecast and surplus projections, which are more optimistic than OMB's, but not on its spending estimates, which are less rosy?

A second example is the extensive use of the emergency designation this year for what everyone agrees is standard, on-going activities. Labeling this spending as an emergency means that it can be approved without regard for any of the budget process limits. At this point, it appears that as much as $25 billion could be put into the emergency category.

Here again, Republicans did not invent the abuse of the emergency designation. However, when the Clinton administration and Congress wanted to use it in 1996 to provide relief funds for the extraordinary floods in the Midwest-something that was clearly a real emergency-fiscally conservative House Republicans in particular insisted that the designation should not be used. They were adamant that Congress and the president agree on cuts in other programs to pay for the flood assistance. Some members used the analogy of a family that has to cut back or cancel its vacation plans to pay for a new roof when the old one springs a bad leak. They then held up passage of the bill when the White House and congressional Democrats insisted that the emergency designation was justified.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the attempted use this year of the emergency designation for such things as the 2000 census, veterans health care, and Pentagon operations has drawn so much criticism. It was virtually inevitable that a political party that tried to declare itself to be so pure on the subject such a short time ago would have more trouble than others explaining its current maneuvers or would come under more scrutiny than others using the same trick might get.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this situation is the lesson it provides for the future. If past insistence on budget purity is leading to more extensive and damaging criticism now, Republicans and Democrats alike should be careful on the pledges they may be making this year. In particular, the absolute vows the two parties have been making about not spending the Social Security surplus could easily and quickly come back to haunt them both-when, for example, that view stands in the way of a tax cut or spending increase that has become a higher priority.

This is important stuff, and both parties should take heed. After all, my former boss lost her election.

Question Of The Week

Last Week's Question. The question-"What would be a good name for a federal budget sports team?"-brought responses from more women than men, which is probably a surprise to those readers who e-mailed me to say they thought the question was sexist. The winners of an "I Won A Budget Battle" t-shirt goes to Julie Dammann, chief of staff for Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., for her suggestion of the "Keep-it-in-the-Blackhawks," and Bill Welch, who reports for USA Today, for his suggestion of the "Redinkskins."

This Week's Question. Here is a technical question that could get you an "I Won A Budget Battle" T-shirt to scare your friends with on Halloween. As "Budget Battles" goes to print this week there is increasing talk in Congress about a 1 percent across-the-board cut in all appropriated programs. But a number of fiscal 2000 appropriations have already been enacted, making it difficult for those cuts to be put in place. Other than exempting the enacted programs, there are essentially only two ways to make across-the board cuts in everything. What are they? Send your response to scollender@njdc.com. The winner will be selected by random drawing if there is more than one correct response.

Nominate Your Choice For The 1999 Black Ink Award --
Or Forever Hold Your Piece

For the second year in a row, "Budget Battles" is presenting the "Black Ink Award" to the person or organization that readers select as having the most positive impact on this year's budget debate. Nominations, which can be made only via e-mail, will be accepted through Friday, Oct. 29 (Only one nomination per person will be accepted.) Through November, readers will be given a chance to vote for one of the top five nominees. The winner of the award will be announced in the final "Budget Battles" of 1999.

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