Looking ahead: some pre-election crises
As we approach election day on November 7th, look for another government shutdown crisis over the federal budget. The Clinton Administration will ask for very high funding levels for a wide variety of government activities. The Republican-controlled Congress will resist such high levels of spending for activities the Republicans will say are either excessive or unnecessary
Previous government shutdowns have worked to the political advantage of the Clinton Administration. So, the question the GOP will face is this: Just how far down the spending road will the Republicans go in order to avoid another shutdown crisis on the eve of the presidential election?
A major (and abused) power of the executive branch is its ability to shift funds from one department of the executive branch to another. For example, billions of dollars appropriated by the Congress for national defense have been shifted over the Clinton years into non-defense programs; mostly, into social-spending programs. The depths to which military morale and preparedness have sunk will be a major issue in this year’s presidential election.
Ironically, the Republicans find themselves with, yet another, Hobson’s Choice. The Reagan-Bush policies brought an end to the Cold War and many Americans think we are now secure. Unfortunately, the world may now be even more dangerous than before. So, the GOP is torn between taking credit for ending the Cold War or owning up to the fact that we must restore our national defense.
Here is another example of a pre-election battle can be used to make the Republicans look bad even though they are not the authors of the problem:
Over the last seven years, Bill Clinton has systemically shifted funds away from forest fire-fighting and used the monies to expand and acquire more lands for national monuments. For example, the fire-fighting budget of the Department of Interior was cut from $322 million to $305 million. The money was shifted to national monuments.
In 1999, the General Accounting Office warned the White House and the Congress of the fire danger when it reported: “It is only a matter of time before catastrophic wildfires become widespread.” Even so, the Department’s fire-fighting budget request for 2001 was cut by the White House from $400 million to $297 million.
Despite this warning, the Administration continued to hamper fire-fighting efforts by closing many roads in our national forests, preventing the construction of additional fire-access roads and refusing to permit the removal of dangerous fuel build-ups on the forest floors.
Now, here’s the irony. Mr. Clinton is now asking the Congress to make an emergency appropriation of $1.5 billion to fight the forest fires that are currently raging, to pay for damages caused by the government-started fires (prescribed burns) and to fund future forest fire-fighting.
If the Congress goes along with the $1.5 billion request, Mr. Clinton will have gotten the money for his national monuments expansion projects through the back door. Using his power to shift funds between departments and between projects within departments, he will get to have his national monument cake and eat it, too.
But what choice does the Congress have now? If Congress refuses to cough up the $1.5 billion, it would look like it is the branch of government that doesn’t want to fight fires and doesn’t want to see home and land owners compensated for the damages caused by the federal government. But, in point of fact, it was the policy of the executive branch that set up this dreadful situation in the first place.
They say it is better to be lucky than smart. At this point, it is hard to say if Mr. Clinton has just outsmarted the Republicans in Congress at almost every turn or has just been lucky in the way things turned out. History will be the judge of that; however, it would be fair to say that so far the Republicans are having to dance to a tune they didn’t write.
William Hamilton is a nationally syndicated columnist and a featured commentator for USA Today.