House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other congressional Republicans have adopted a new theme in attacking the White House on the budget impasse. It goes like this: Only one thing stands between America and a balanced budget: President Clinton.
Few could argue that the Clinton White House has been a major roadblock to a balanced budget. But this latest GOP sound bite may be a cop-out for taking tough action right now on the budget. In short, Republicans in Congress can and should unilaterally move America toward a balanced budget regardless of Clinton's veto pen.
Congress holds a powerful trump card in its negotiations with Clinton. There still is a massive catalog of more than $200 billion of mostly low-priority spending programs - many of which are near and dear to the president's heart - that have not been appropriated for 1996. Any or all of these programs can and will be funded only if congressional Republicans allow them to be. This is not Clinton's choice; it is Congress'.
If Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, with the support of fiscally conservative Democrats and Republicans, are willing to bite the bullet and make significant spending cuts in the seemingly bottomless grabbag of corporate welfare and social pork programs, the 1996 budget deficit can be slashed to well below $140 billion - its lowest level in 15 years. Admittedly, this will require cuts in programs that many moderate Republicans support and in pork programs that pump dollars into GOP districts. But if this Congress is incapable of laying aside parochial considerations - even temporarily - to reduce federal red ink, then its commitment to deficit reduction is only slightly less shallow than the president's.
The preferred budget strategy is predicated on an unpleasant fiscal fact of life: The prospect of scoring significant savings this year in Medicare, Medicaid and welfare lies somewhere between slim and none. It takes agreement between Congress and the president to change the laws that dictate the patterns of entitlement spending. Clinton has displayed steely resolve in his opposition to meaningful entitlement-program savings.
But the appropriations process is almost entirely under the authority of Congress. Indeed, Congress has the equivalent of what every president for the past century has begged: a line-item veto on spending. Either the House or the Senate can veto a program simply by refusing to appropriate money for it. The presidential veto is impotent against such a strategy. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston had it absolutely right six months ago when he declared, "If the president vetoes a zero, he still gets a zero." The White House can never, ever force Congress to spend more money on a program than Congress wants to spend.
Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress are pursuing a deeply flawed procedure, known as a continuing resolution, or CR, that provides far too much money for many of the federal government's most wasteful and obsolete agencies. Under the GOP's CR, all programs will be funded at a minimum of 75 percent of last year's levels and most programs will get more. Hundreds of unnecessary programs and projects that Republicans had eliminated earlier this year live on at three-quarters of last year's budget. In other words, a multitude of programs will fare much better under a continuing resolution than they would under normal appropriations.
The accompanying table lists a sample of the many low-priority programs that have not yet been funded this year. The $200 billion pot of money includes oinkers ranging from the Legal Services Corp. to the World Bank to the Women's Educational Equity Act to Commerce Department corporate handouts. Most of the programs targeted for elimination in the Penny-Kasich Common Cents Deficit Reduction Act of 1993 - a truly bipartisan effort to cut spending - were in these five Cabinet agencies.
The overriding motivation behind a CR should be to put the squeeze on federal programs to force Clinton back to the negotiating table. …