Friday, September 24, 1999

Budget battle may last

Gannett News Service

        WASHINGTON — The Oct. 1 start of fiscal 2000 is only days away, and Congress has sent President Clinton less than half of the 13 annual spending bills needed to keep government departments running.

        Mr. Clinton has issued veto threats for at least four that lawmakers still are working on. The ensuing battle over how much money should be spent on a number of both popular and vilified programs promises to be a long and politically risky one that will lead into the 2000 campaign.

        Some questions and answers about how we got here, and about the complicated and confusing appropriations process:

        Question: Will the government shut down when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1?

Answer: No, barring a drastic change in strategy by congressional leaders and the White House. Congress is planning to pass, and Mr. Clinton is likely to sign, a temporary spending bill, called a “continuing resolution,” to keep all government offices running at current levels until near the end of October.

        Q: So this could be over in a month?

A: Not likely. The differences over spending priorities between the White House and Congress are so deep, and the posturing in advance of the 2000 elections so intense, that such talks could drag on for some time. The odds of some government departments shutting down are not high because Republicans are still gun-shy over the blame they received after the 1995-'96 government shutdowns, but the possibility grows greater if the standoff drags on.

        Q: The government has billions in taxes and revenue rolling in every month. How can it run out of money and close down?

A: The revenue the government receives has to be handed out annually by Congress and the president through 13 appropriations bills that cover all of the government's offices and financial commitments such as foreign aid, school lunches for the poor and college education grants. Q: What are they fighting about this time?

A: There are two overarching arguments about the whole process: How much spending is appropriate, as usual, and — for the first time — Social Security.

        Q: What does Social Security have to do with this?

A: When the government began to develop budget surpluses in 1998, Mr. Clinton challenged Congress not to spend any of it until “we save Social Security first.” That challenge evolved into a pledge by both parties this year to not touch any of the surplus headed for the Social Security Trust Fund, where money for future payments is supposed to be kept. The problem is that even by using non-Social Security surpluses of $14 billion and breaking the spending limits, Congress will have a very tough time not using any of the Social Security surplus and writing appropriations bills that can pass.

        So each party is positioning itself to blame the other if and when some of the Social Security surplus is tapped — and, meanwhile, no one is writing or negotiating spending bills that really will become law.


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