Firewalls may well be the hottest issue in Washingtotn during this four-week congressional session between political conventions. The term applies to a provision in the 1990 budget agreement between the Bush White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress that forbids using savings in defense or foreign aid to fund domestic programs. Instead, the money supposedly is to be used to reduce the deficit.
We say supposedly because the Democratic leadership has been hellbent all year on breaking down these firewalls and thereby making hash out of efforts to bring the federal budget under control. Last March, the leadership tried to shift $7.5 billion in Pentagon funds to domestic purposes but a rebellion in the ranks thwarted this exercise in fiscal irresponsibility.
Does this mean big spenders on Capitol Hill suddenly got religion? Alas, the answer is no. That vote last spring was primarily an expression of legislative fear that if open season were really declared on the defense budget, contracts and bases back home might become endangered species.
An easier target obviously was foreign aid, especially in an election year and, sure enough, when the foreign aid appropriations bill hit the House floor earlier this month, the Democratic leadership got what it didn't get last March: a majority vote of 269 to 187 to switch $400 million from foreign aid to transportation projects. Each state ($39 million for Maryland) was to get its dollop of pork. In the Maryland delegation, only Democrats Tom McMillen and Beverly Byron and Republicans Wayne Gilchrest and Connie Morella resisted temptation.
Fortunately, President Bush is committed to vetoing this breach of faith. But it is not a popular stand. The American people have long had a hate affair with foreign aid. Despite assertions it is vital to a strong international policy, it is doubly detested in the midst of recession. One factor that may sustain a Bush veto is a fear among supporters of Israel that full-scale slashing of the program could threaten loan guarantees for the new Rabin government, which is heeding U.S. demands to hold back on settlements in the West Bank.
So far, Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton has not revealed how he stands on the 1990 budget agreement. His platform sends cross-signals: a blueprint for reducing record deficits run up during the Reagan-Bush years and a vow to increase public-sector investment in roads, bridges and other public works. He may not welcome being put on the spot on the issue of firewalls because the president next January, whoever he is, will be submitting a fiscal 1994 budget that will not be subject to the 1990 restraints.
The nation, we fear, is faced with the same bleak budget prospects it had before the Perot revolt came and went, leaving only a few other voices talking real sense about cutting deficits.