Firewalls in Flames

March 18, 1992

Congress is going to have another chance to make a travesty of itself this week when it votes on a House Democratic leadership scheme to tear down the walls of fiscal discipline built into the 1990 budget agreement. If the House goes along, the Senate will then get a chance to show it is equally irresponsible. Taxpayers need lose no sleep from this charade, however. If Congress passes this legislation, it will be vetoed by President Bush and his veto will be sustained.

Only two weeks ago, Democrats were chiding Mr. Bush for his assertion that he made a "mistake" in approving the budget agreement when, actually, his mistake was his "no new taxes" pledge in the first place. House Budget Committee chairman Leon Panetta chipped in, saying the American people want a president "who will defend what he thinks is right."

Only a few weeks earlier, Mr. Panetta described the 1990 budget agreement as "the best discipline in place in the history of the budget process." But under intense pressure from Foley, Gephardt & Co., this one-time hero of budget discipline retreated from "what he thinks is right" and went along to get along.

Let's be clear what this is all about. To secure Mr. Bush's support for a tax increase, the Democratic leadership agreed in 1990 to airtight spending caps for three years in the separate categories of defense, foreign aid and domestic programs. Any savings achieved by staying under these ceilings were to go to deficit reduction. "Firewalls" would prevent any shifting from category to category.

With the end of the Cold War, an opportunity presented itself to slash Pentagon budget authority. Fine. We support this adjustment to new circumstances. But once the "peace dividend" appeared, a feeding frenzy erupted on Capitol Hill. Goaded by organized labor, by state and local governments and a host of other pork-hungry interest groups, Democrats lost their zeal for deficit reduction.

Instead, Mr. Panetta's committee came up with the curious idea of asking the House to approve two budget agreements -- one to unleash domestic spending, the other to adhere to deficit reduction. Both passed, contradictions notwithstanding. Now along comes Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., with a proposal to pour 75 percent of defense savings into the recession-hit domestic economy.

No matter that the recession may be over before the funds become available. The same Democratic leadership that gave us the House bank scandal cover-up is trying to push through the Conyers "walls bill" knowing it is only a political statement -- and an egregiously feckless one at that.

The "walls bill" is only one of a batch of budget and tax proposals -- some from the administration, some from Congress -- whose only purpose is partisan combat. If any fiscal legislation gets on the law books this year, it will be modest indeed. For that the country can be grateful. But what's going on is one hell of a way to run a government.

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