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Spending Congress jeopardizes `surplus'

Like sailors on shore leave after a year at sea, Congress has a big wad of taxpayer money burning a hole in its pockets, and members seem determined to spend as much of it as they possibly can before calling it quits this year.

Particularly gung-ho with the citizenry's purse are those who're retiring or voluntarily leaving and want to slip through all their pet projects in the bedlam surrounding upcoming elections and the need to get key appropriations measures passed before adjournment.

In an all-out marathon of anything-goes funding, this Congress is on one of the biggest spending sprees in the history of the Republic. By mid-October, it had already spent $100 billion more than promised in the deal it had struck to balance the federal budget - no little irony considering that the Republican-majority's number one promise to the nation on taking control of Congress was to chop the fat out of government spending.

Those who monitor the "pork" in congressional expenditures put the total for members' favorite projects at $23 billion at mid-October, with hundreds of millions more being added right and left to every bill imaginable. "An all-out pork-a-thon," is how Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute described it. "The worst I've ever seen it," said Sen. John McCain.

The list is long; among them, money to help refurbish the time/weather-worn statute of Vulcan in Birmingham, Ala.; half a million to restore a Cleveland, Ohio, amusement park carousel; $2 million for a study on the feasibility of allowing Las Vegas gamblers to have more time at the tables and slot machines by being able to pick up airline boarding passes at their hotels instead of at the airport (itself a facility almost as big as the town where I live and built with many millions of federal dollars); etc., etc. The measures seem to be limited only by the imagination of the constituents/lobbyists involved.

So wild has been the spending spree that a Republican who hasn't even been elected in a free-for-all House contest in Utah was able to get Majority Leader Dick Armey to steer through two bills totaling $5 million for projects in the Salt Lake City area in order to help his election chances.

All of which may toss a king-sized monkeywrench into the platforms of presidential candidates Al Gore and George Bush, who, as their campaigns slog along to Nov. 7, are adding more and more big budget spending and tax cut items to their list of promises - based on projected 10-year surpluses of nearly $5 trillion.

In the first place, those surpluses are only statistical legerdemain, pegged to what was an extremely robust economy that is now showing signs of flagging, and could significantly reduce the expected spending pot. In the second place, congressional spending sprees now and in the future could further erode any projected surplus by hundreds of billions of dollars. It is estimated, for example, that measures being pushed through in this session alone could eat up more than $800 billion of the projected surplus, plus another couple hundred billion in extra interest payments the government would have to make.

Given that the rate of government "discretionary" spending has been growing faster than the inflation rate, on which surplus projections are based, some analysts say the bite into the surplus could be almost $1.5 trillion.

That could, over the 10-year period, wipe out the entire projected surplus and result in some serious pain as Congress and the administration tried to find ways to atone for their fiscal profligacy.

All of which only reinforces the fact that the cost of presidential campaign promises often pales beside the cost of several hundred members of Congress with their hands in the till.

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