Politicians are now ending the era of smart budgets

  • Geneva Overholser / Washington Post columnist
  • Tuesday, October 17, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — The maples on Capitol Hill are turning deep red these days, and visions of electoral sugarplums are dancing in senators’ heads. Which is to say, they’re finishing up the budget, with Nov. 7 very much in mind.

Bill Hoagland disapproves.

Hoagland is staff director for the Senate Budget Committee. In his office, with its stirring view of the Capitol, Hoagland makes the nation’s finances seem almost comprehensible to a visitor: He talks as comfortably about trillions as most of us do about twenties.

But he’s not happy with the process today. "Good policies are made in eras of deficits. If we were still a little bit more constrained, I don’t think we’d be passing some of the legislation we are." Hoagland points to the television screen, where senators are debating one of 13 appropriations bills. The sound is off, but one thing’s for sure: They aren’t making cuts. The lure of additions that could affect votes in a couple of weeks is too strong.

We’re in an era of surpluses, as the presidential candidates keep reminding us, jousting about how to spend them. Hoagland wishes we’d all remember that times change, and quickly.

"We are the front end of the postwar baby boom, and we come in with a vengeance, and these surpluses will turn." He expects the turn in 2013 or so, as Social Security receipts no longer equal payouts.

As Hoagland speaks, the senators are busily spending hundreds of millions on nice projects back home, along with extra money for "everything from the Internal Revenue Service to public housing," as one news report put it the next day. The spending bills are growing well beyond the caps Congress imposed on itself. Meanwhile, the government is operating on continuing resolutions, because Congress — as has become its custom — was far from finished when the fiscal year opened Oct. 1.

Yet there’s nothing this year, Hoagland says gratefully, like the "high-rolling politics" that shut down the government in ‘95. During that tumultuous year, Hoagland went to the White House to meet with Bill Clinton on an arcane aspect of food stamp legislation. He found Clinton "an extremely intelligent man when it comes to policy." The two of them were discussing "something so subtle, and he knew as much about it as I did."

Hoagland normally puts his own prodigious policy knowledge to work for New Mexico’s Pete Domenici, chair of the Senate Budget Committee. This explains why strings of chili peppers are hanging in the office of an Indiana farm boy. But Hoagland is a man shaped by thoughts fiscal rather than ideological.

He says he jested with a group of senators that it was fine, passing all this legislation that will be cutting into the surplus for years to come. But, effective Nov. 7, "We ought to have a law that says, all legislation in Congress enacted during the last 25 days is repealed."

In reality, though, Hoagland’s job is to keep the process going as the senators want it. Tacked onto the last spending measure will be language permitting them to exceed the caps — language prepared by staffers like Hoagland: "We help ‘em out of their fixes."

Asked what he thinks of the public’s views of the budget, Hoagland sees confusion. "The American public believes we spend a lot more on foreign aid than we do," and underestimates spending on the elderly. "The ratio of spending for the elderly vs. children is almost 10 to one, and it’s going to get worse." Also, people overstate the percentage going to the poor. "In fact, we’re spending money on middle-income elderly retired people, and they’re not necessarily without assets."

As it happens, an organization here called the Center on Policy Attitudes last month surveyed the public to see how it would spend the federal monies. After looking at actual expenditures, respondents would cut defense an average 24 percent. They would raise federal support for education by 45 percent, for job training by 128 percent, and for medical research by 147 percent. And the highest percentage increase — 218 percent — would go to the United Nations and U.N. peacekeeping.

On the surplus, respondents said 71 percent should go to shore up Social Security and Medicare and pay down the debt. Only 18 percent wanted tax relief and 11 percent, new spending.

On the surplus — and thus on the wisdom of prudence in flush times — the public is with you, Bill Hoagland. Even if the politicians are not.

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