Coming Spending Fights Could be 80s Replay

Remember the endless end-of-session confrontations between President Reagan and the Democratic-controlled Congresses of the 1980s? Former Speaker Tip O’Neill and his allies would bundle the year’s spending bills into one gargantuan package, quietly add tax increases, multi-billion dollar expansions to Medicare and Medicaid, tinker with housing, education, environmental and energy policies, and then send the unread legislative mess to the White House in the dark of night, daring the president to sign it.

In 1988, Reagan reluctantly signed a 3,296-page omnibus bill and accompanying conference report weighing, as he put it, “a total of 43 pounds of paper and ink” and passed by Congress after only six hours of consideration. One of these legislative atrocities was pulled together so hastily that the legislative text omitted certain key budget numbers. In their place was a written reminder to “call Rita for these figures” along with her phone number, all of which was dutifully enacted into law.

Well, get ready to go back to the 1980s. The fall legislative agenda is shaping up to be another seminal confrontation between a Republican president nearing the end of his second term and a rambunctious Democratic Congress. The difference is that the leaders of this Congress are newly returned to power after a 12-year hiatus and must grapple with more than a decade of pent-up frustration among their fellow Democrats — a decade that saw most liberal legislative dreams deferred and more than a few conservative ones achieved.

The liberals’ first order of business will be to replenish the coffers of domestic programs they believe stingy Republicans have drained. Of course, the last six years have hardly been frugal ones, but never mind: Democratic lawmakers still want to employ budget gimmicks and boost spending by $24 billion over the level the president requested.

Republican resistance to this additional spending first surfaced in May when top White House budget official Rob Portman complained to Democratic leaders that “the first step on the path to a balanced budget [is not] a substantial increase in federal spending.” He warned that the president would veto any spending bill that exceeds his budget request. Within a week, 147 House Republicans had Bush’s back, signing a letter in which they pledged to sustain any such veto (two more votes than the one-third required).

Since then, the president has sent a steady stream of consistent signals that he intends to stand firm in the spending wars. He has issued strong veto threats on the dramatic expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), the farm bill, and virtually all of the spending bills the House has considered.

He has even staked out a principled, but quixotic, position on the Water Resources Development Act, a legislative cornucopia overflowing with funding for wasteful water projects, waterfront development schemes, and even roads. Somehow, Portman wrote to House leaders, “a $14 billion Senate bill went into conference with the House’s $15 billion bill and…a bill emerged costing approximately $20 billion.” The president, he warned, “will veto this bill.”

The good news for Bush is that his get-tough stance on spending enjoys enough support among conservative lawmakers (at least in the House; the Senate has yet to consider most of these bills) to force Democrats to the bargaining table. Veto-sustaining margins of House Republicans have already opposed six of the nine domestic spending bills. On two of the remaining bills, the gap is so small (five or fewer votes) that a little presidential arm-twisting should be enough to reach the required 145.

Special kudos goes to freshman Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a fiscally conservative two-time college-wrestling champion who proposed across-the-board cuts to nine domestic spending bills. Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), a veteran appropriator, offered a similar amendment to the homeland security measure. Though these amendments were soundly defeated, an analysis suggests that Bush has more than 140 staunch supporters, including House Republican leaders, with dozens of others ready to join in. Rep. Lewis, no fiscal hawk, speaks for many of his colleagues when he says: “I would support any veto by the president.”

Add in the Democrats’ burning desire to create new entitlement programs and raise taxes, and their track record in folding all sorts of unrelated legislation into one year-end package, and we have the makings of a rehash of the 80s.

Republicans won’t easily regain the moral high ground they’ve lost on federal spending. But, thanks to Bush’s leadership and the persistence of young conservative firebrands like Jordan, the road map of where they have to travel is clear.

And attainable.