Congress Set to Bust Budget Caps

You probably wouldn't hire a lawyer to do your accountant's job. But odds are good you did elect an attorney to manage the government's budget, as nearly 200 of the 535 lawmakers mulling over this year's budget are attorneys.

That may be one reason several budget experts expect Congress to bust its $661 billion budget resolution for fiscal year 2002.

"I am assuming spending will be up $20 billion" from what is currently planned, said Stanley Collender, a budget expert who leads the public affairs department for lobbying firm Fleishman-Hillard.

"The president's plan called for a 4 percent increase," said Stephen Moore, the president of the Club for Growth, a political advocacy group that supports economic growth-oriented tax and fiscal policies.  "The budget resolution was at about 4.5 to 5 percent. My estimate is it will end up at about 7 to 8 percent,"

Despite a reputation for fiscal prudence associated with the GOP, both parties can assume a share of responsibility for inflating budget numbers, Moore said.

"Every year that the Republicans have run Congress, they've become more pro-spending and less and less the party of small government. We now have two 'big government' parties."

That worries budget experts like Moore, who say that government spending reduces economic growth. "The more the government spends, the more chance of a recession."

Estimates Based on Process Underway

Collender and Moore base their budget estimates on the appropriations process currently underway in Congress.

The $661 billion budget resolution passed by Congress in May was supposed to limit the amount of spending, but it was higher than the president's request.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is expected to ask for an additional $18 billion for military construction and defense on top of its nearly $300 billion budget.

And although only four of 13 spending bills have worked their way to the House floor, and none has made it through the Senate, the Senate already has voted on an education reform package that would add $12 billion to what the president requested.  The House version would add $4 billion.

"We're doing what we're allowed to do under the budget resolution," said House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield. "Congress's priorities are different than the president's."

Veto Threat Would Help Budget Hawks

But Scofield said that so far the four bills that have passed the House Appropriations Committee are all near the president's request.

"We're not going to get a veto threat," he said, adding that if the president did issue such a threat, it could assist the Appropriations Committee members to "keep a lid on things" since committee chairman C.W. "Bill" Young, R-Fla., has received hundreds of requests from Congressman on both sides of the aisle for billions of dollars of additional spending.

"The committee members are not big spenders," Scofield said. "There is institutional pressure to spend."

Moore and Collender agree that a presidential veto threat may be the only thing that keeps the appropriations process in check, particularly in the Senate, where the first bill, Interior Appropriations, is expected to go through the committee on Thursday.

"Somebody has to be the guardian of the public interest," Moore said, "and if it ain't the president, it's not going to be (Sen.) Byrd or (Sen.) Kennedy or (House Speaker) Hastert for that matter."

Having the Democrats in charge of the Senate may be a blessing in disguise for the president, Collender said. "It means lower spending because the president can veto bills and blame it on the Democrats."

Tom Gavin, spokesman for Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said while the chairman would like to move 10 of the appropriations bills before the summer recess in August, three spending bills — labor, defense and health and human services — "will have to be revisited."

That's because the labor and defense bills will contain the education and military spending increases. And the health and human services bill could possibly contain a costly prescription drug benefit.

If all the new spending proposals were to be accepted, the budget for 2002 would swell to more than $100 billion over current estimates, according to Collender.

What the final budget will be, however, is anybody's guess. "If anyone tells you they know how things are going to work out, they're lying to you," Scofield said.

Sharon Kehnemui is a digital marketing consultant and founder of Frequency Partners. She is a former senior politics editor for Follow her on Twitter @digisharon.