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The unshrinkable US government

Even as Congress passes tax cuts, party roles are muddled by the era of surpluses.

Five years after the GOP seized control of Congress and vowed to drastically shrink and reshape the federal government, the federal government remains largely the same.

Remember how the Department of Education was going to be eliminated? Its budget today is larger than it was in 1995. What about the youth service program Americorps, a prime Republican target? Bigger and better funded than ever before.

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Meanwhile, it's a president from the big-spending Democrats, Bill Clinton, who this week held a press conference about paying down the national debt.

Only a few months after black ink reappeared on US Treasury books it appears that post-deficit politics has transformed many of Washington's traditional partisan fiscal positions.

The surplus has dampened the budget-cutting fervor of some GOP lawmakers while pointing out the virtues of restraint to many Democrats. It's getting harder and harder to determine politicians' budget priorities from their party label.

"The parties just haven't figured out what the right position is on the surplus," says Stan Collender, director of the Federal Budget Consulting Group at Fleishman-Hillard.

Consider the crosscurrents of this week alone. On Tuesday, House and Senate Republican leaders hammered out a $792 billion tax cut bill. If Congress doesn't give taxpayers their money back via big rate cuts, said many in the GOP, Washington would simply spend it.

Meanwhile, many of those same lawmakers were helping Congress do just that. The Senate passed a $7.4 billion emergency-aid bill for farmers, while the House approved a $4.5 billion census appropriation, also labeled "emergency".

These two bills are likely to become law. Together, they would eat up $12 billion of next year's projected $14 billion surplus.

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More cash would be available if lawmakers tapped excess Social Security funds, but both President Clinton and the GOP have ruled that money out-of-bounds.

Self-imposed caps are supposed to prevent Congress from spending the surplus. But labeling appropriations "emergencies" allows lawmakers to limbo under these limits.

"If conservatives can call census spending an 'emergency' there are no conservatives left," says Stan Collender.

That's not, strictly speaking, true. Others count at least 50 reliable votes in the House for budget cuts, surplus or no.

But overall the advent of the surplus era has made former Speaker Newt Gingrich's vow to radically transform government sound like a call to arms from another era.

The GOP's narrow margin of control has meant that any large reshaping of government would be a difficult endeavor. And even many members of the zealous GOP freshman class of 1994 have found that their constituents like a bit of pork now and then - and that bureaucratic inertia makes killing off programs very hard.

An analysis by the Cato Institute holds that the appropriations process has been marked by a pro-spending trend. Cato says that last year, lawmakers approved an increase in "discretionary" spending (everything except interest on the debt and Social Security and other entitlements) that was the second largest in 21 years.

Overall, discretionary spending is now lower than it was when Republicans took control of Congress. But the difference is entirely accounted for by the fact that defense spending has taken a $30 billion cut.

Many domestic programs that were once on the GOP's budget chopping block have survived, and even prospered. The Goals 2000 effort to study a national education curriculum has almost double the money it had four years ago.

"The revolutionary fervor to downsize government has been eliminated from the Republican party as it ... settles in to being the ruling party," says Cato director of fiscal policy Stephen Moore.

Others say the situation is more complicated than a simple loss of momentum.

"It's a whole combination of factors that represent 'The System'," says Ralph DeGennaro, executive director of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The instinct of individual members for political self-preservation plays a part, as does the "Iron Triangle" of members of Congress, agency officials, and contractors who benefit from particular programs, says Ralph DeGennara, executive director of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

"We need to build bridges across partisan divides," says Mr. DeGennaro. "You can't cut wasteful spending if it's just the right or the left that's trying."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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