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Back when the Republicans were the party of fiscal responsibility -- before Ronald Reagan, supply-side economics, the Laffer curve and the $2 trillion debt -- they used to preach to us about the dangers of playing accounting games with the federal budget, and they argued passionately against the evils of pork-barrel spending. That was also before the Republicans took control of Congress.

This is so depressing -- the Rs have already spent the entire budget surplus for 2000, and now they want to eat the projected surplus for 2001 as well. Haven't seen such a cheery bunch of optimists since the last Micawber family reunion, with all chanting in chorus, "Something will turn up."

Now we are into the world of creative accounting. According to the New York Times, the Rs are not only borrowing $12 billion from a surplus that has yet to materialize, but they're showing a flair for imaginary crises by putting things like next year's census under "emergency spending." Since the Constitution mandates the census and we've been conducting one every 10 years since 1790, this is not precisely an unforeseen emergency.

The House Republicans have their own endearing way of dealing with budget crisis. First, they wanted to cut $1 billion from programs for poor and working-class people from the block-grant program, which finances things like day care and foster care. This was so they could keep their big tax cut, which hugely benefits the richest people and helps everyone else almost not at all. So next, the House Republicans thought they would simply delay the payment of billions of dollars to poor and working-class Americans under the earned-income tax credit program, the only good idea that Reagan ever had. But the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee denounced this as a gimmick, so they've gone back to the plan to lift money out of a nonexistent surplus.

What the Rs are not talking about is that they are busting all the spending caps they imposed in 1997. This would be less surprising had it not been pointed out to them at the time that the spending caps were impossibly Draconian.

Meanwhile, some of the House Rs did a fine and noble thing by going against their own leadership to pass a campaign-finance reform bill for the second year in a row. On a 252-177 vote, 54 Republicans joined the Democrats to pass the Shays-Meehan bill, which would bar the use of unregulated, unlimited "soft money" from corporations, unions and the very rich.

Even though the 54 Republicans deserve special credit for bucking the leadership, in some ways it was an easier vote, because campaign finance reform is still blocked in the Senate by threat of a filibuster from Mitch McConnell, the senator from tobacco.

In another can't-get-it-together moment, the House Rs have arrived at an impasse on a patients' bill of rights. As usual, the sticking point is whether patients should be allowed to sue do-badding HMOs. Oh, come now, how difficult is this? Doctors operate, take out healthy kidney, leave diseased kidney; patient dies. I think the patient's family should sue -- what do you think?

Norman Ornstein, writing his annual post-Labor Day appraisal of Congress for Roll Call, notes that the GOP budget plan, with its $800 billion tax cut, is based on projections from the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO projections of $1 trillion in non-Social Security surpluses are based on highly shaky assumptions. The CBO assumes no emergency spending for the next 10 years -- no hurricanes, floods, quakes, Kosovos, East Timors or even, under Republican rules, a census.

The CBO also assumes that the 1997 budget caps will be met for 10 years, meaning a 30 percent reduction in all discretionary spending, from health care to embassy security to the FBI to environmental clean-up. Envision it -- not just no increases in spending for such programs, but a 30 percent cut.

One of the saddest things that's occurred under the Republican regime is the ruination of the CBO. Under Alice Rivlin, now of the Federal Reserve, the CBO cranked out honest, realistic numbers that both parties trusted. It was an enormous help in getting politicians to agree on tax and fiscal policy, because they trusted the same set of numbers. But when you're working with budget assumptions from cloud-cuckoo-land, that's when you get nutty policy like an $800 billion tax cut.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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