WASHINGTON -- President Bush wants an $842 billion contingency fund that could be used over the next decade for bigger tax cuts, added debt reduction and defense spending, or other priorities.
But there's a problem: There's no way to ensure that the money won't be gobbled up first by lawmakers. As a result, congressional budget writers haven't decided yet how to preserve the money, and may not even try.
"Anyone who looks at this will probably fear that a $1 trillion reserve fund becomes a $1 trillion slush fund for Congress, and is used for buying votes along the way," said Scott Hodge, executive director of the conservative Tax Foundation.
Already, lawmakers who champion tax cuts are eyeing the money, along with the Pentagon, farmers, and others. That raises questions about how much of it will be left after this year's budget is completed.
Bush's contingency fund depends on the $5.6 trillion in surpluses projected from 2002 through 2011 by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
The fund would allow Bush to argue that plenty of money remains for popular priorities after financing the heart of his budget, his $1.6 trillion, 10-year tax cut.
It also would let him sidestep the ticklish task of dividing the contingency fund among programs -- an exercise that would have inevitably left some legislators and interest groups complaining that their favorite initiatives were shortchanged.
But ultimately, with Congress and the president writing new federal budgets annually, there is no real way for them to safely tuck money away for a decade.
Even if Congress voted tomorrow to set the $842 billion aside, it could vote next year -- or even the next day -- to change its mind and use the money for whatever it wanted. Even if lawmakers enacted parliamentary hurdles to getting at the money, they could vote to ignore those barriers if they chose to use the money for a particular purpose.
"There's no procedural way to wall that money off with any more effective restraints than already exist for the ordinary budgetary desires of Congress and the president," said Robert Reischauer, a former CBO director.
Congressional Democrats take an even harsher view of Bush's proposed reserve.
They say the cost of additional tax cuts and spending increases that Bush and lawmakers want will exceed the money in Bush's contingency fund. That could mean dipping into the Medicare trust fund to pay for those initiatives -- a politically risky move that members of both parties say they won't do.
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