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It took a doctor to discover the disease that has infected the
Republican budget for the year 2000. Rep. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a
physician from Muskogee, examined the Agriculture Appropriations Bill –
the first of the 13 giant bills that make up the federal budget to hit
the floor in the U.S. House of Representatives — and made a diagnosis:
Spendingitis. He decided to check further. A quick look at some of the
bills to follow revealed that the disease was spreading.

This caused Dr. Coburn and his allies on the Conservative Action Team
(CATS), a group of 40+ principled members in the Lower Chamber, to take
a good, long, hard look at the budget outline which determines the
spending allocations for each of these bills. When the GOP budget was
passed last spring, members did a lot of crowing about how it will allow
them to give the American people a tax cut, beef up defense and save the
Social Security surplus all at the same time. However, Coburn and his
buddies discovered a fatal flaw.

Republicans signed a new five-year budget agreement with Mr. Clinton
in 1997 which put the nation on a track to reach a balanced budget,
something we hadn’t seen in far too long. This five-year plan was no
different from those which had been enacted before. They all began with
spending free-for-alls, with the serious cuts taking place in years four
and five. The funny thing about those plans, before we got into the
“out” years, they were scrapped for yet other new, improved plans. The
savings in all those budgets never were realized.

Under the present plan, our federal budget reached balance last year
instead of the year 2002 because of windfall profits in the stock
market. This unexpected surplus was like a spending aphrodisiac to our
representatives. Then, someone pointed out that the surplus really
wasn’t a surplus at all but, in fact, rightfully belonged to Social
Security. There would be no spending spree, or so they all promised.
Unfortunately, the damage had been done. Everyone had made his own
plans for the surplus, and those plans died hard. To make matters
worse, according to the 1997 deal, year three of the five year plan
called for the first real cut. The 2000 budget would have to be $10
billion smaller than the 1999 budget. Then came the war with
Yugoslavia, which depleted our military. Another $19 billion was added
to the defense budget, which meant another $19 billion in cuts had to be
made somewhere else to come in under the caps.

Coburn and the CATS team suddenly realized that the first
appropriations bills readied for floor action, those on the relatively
non-controversial end of the budget, hadn’t been cut at all. In fact,
some had been increased. Leadership had saved the hard bills like
Veterans Administration/Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Health and
Human Services for last and that was where all the cuts were supposed to
take place. For example, the Labor HHS bill, the one the liberals will
die to protect, is scheduled to be cut by a whopping $10 billion.

The leadership strategy was to allow the first bills to sail by and
save the real battle over spending for the last two or three
appropriations bills, which everyone agrees will be tough regardless of
the size of the cuts. That’s tantamount to picking up speed after you
reach a sign that says “Bridge Out.”

Before Congress broke for the annual Memorial Day recess, a group of
GOP moderates, including Michael Castle, R-Del., and John Porter,
R-Ill., sent a letter to President Clinton requesting a budget summit to
negotiate changes in the 1997 deal to ease the spending constraints. The
letter, signed by 14 congressmen, said, “The difficult issues involving
discretionary spending levels can only be resolved by the President and
the congressional leadership.” In other words, these Republicans want
to continue down the trail blazed by their Democratic predecessors:
Before it comes time to make the cuts called for in the “out” years of a
five-year plan, scrap it and begin again. Was that leadership’s plan
all along? Dump all the cuts in the difficult bills so they are
impossible to pass, so in the end everyone will throw up his hands and
say, “This is impossible! We need a new plan.”

Worse still, the Agriculture bill was reported out of the
Appropriations Committee $253 million over budget. Now, Dr. Coburn is a
firm believer in preventive medicine, so he had a conference with
leadership to explain that this patient needed an emergency
“spendingectomy.” When leadership refused to listen, Coburn took out
his scalpel and went to work on the Agriculture bill. His CATS scrub
team came up with over 100 amendments and they were preparing more.
This was the equivalent of an old fashioned Senate filibuster. This not
only halted legislation, it drew attention to the problem and Speaker
Hastert began to squirm.

When Congress came back from the recess, Hastert called everyone
together to rally the troops. He gave a rah-rah speech and asked them,
in the interest of time, to allow the Agriculture bill to pass as is,
and said the other bills would be trimmed in order to reduce the cuts in
final bills. He promised to honor the 1997 balanced-budget agreement,
protect the Social Security trust fund and to pass a tax cut. He
maintained he would stand firm when it came time for the big battle over
Labor HHS, saying, “If the president believes that higher spending is
needed, he will have to tell the American people that it must come out
of Social Security.”

The fiscal conservatives are still shaking their heads, wondering why
their leadership isn’t willing to deal with the difficult bills first,
and let any ground given, determine the size of the cuts for the
remaining bills. However, they have backed down. As a result, not one,
but two appropriations bills have been passed — Agriculture and
Legislative Branch — with spending slightly up, not down, from last
year.

After all this time, do Republicans seriously think they can back
President Clinton into a spending corner and get away with it? Do they
really think they can force him into asking for a new budget deal and
come out of this smelling like roses?

Have they forgotten that the American people sent them to Washington
to shrink government? The only way to do that is to reduce spending
across the board. We certainly did not send them to Washington to spend
more money on Agriculture pork or themselves. Quick! Put the good
doctor back on the House floor with his scalpel. If a spendingectomy
isn’t done, and soon, all House Republicans will be infected. This
condition is terminal!

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