WASHINGTON -- Amid bipartisan hysteria about dipping into Social Security funds, senators return from their August recess to confront an embarrassment: a bill to drain $15.3 billion from the Treasury to provide gilt-edged railroad worker pensions. Passed by an overwhelming House vote and sponsored by 77 out of 100 senators, the Railroad Retirement and Survivors Improvement Act of 2001 is the elephant in the Senate chamber.
The bill was merely outrageous early this year when a large budget surplus was projected. Since then, 40 percent of that surplus has vanished. Then, how is it possible now to drive this gravy train? The answer is simple and audacious. The lawmakers have written "directed scoring" into their legislation. The bill lavishing favors on politically potent railway workers will deplete the surplus by not one dollar, because the lawmakers have so decreed.
This is uncomfortable for Sen. Kent Conrad, the Senate Budget Committee chairman who has terrorized colleagues into believing there is truly an inviolable Social Security fund that limits all other government. Yet, the same Kent Conrad is one of the many Senate sponsors of the railway pension grab. That poses a dilemma for the Budget Chairman as he prepares to harangue Bush administration officials on the budget this week. Should he accept the bogus bookkeeping, just cut into the Social Security surplus or abandon the pension bill?
When I wrote about this remarkable bill a month ago, the administration had all but given up trying to stop a bill with such wide support. The bill addresses a $40 billion unfunded liability in the railroad workers pension fund by cutting payroll taxes and increasing benefits, while allowing fund managers to invest in the private sector (violating President Bush's rules). The bill was to be brought up in the House under procedures that promised a minimum of public attention.
The problem was how to justify giving railroad workers and their widows a pension plan granted to no other American when both parties had blundered into building a "lock box" for Social Security funds. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and Budget Director Mitch Daniels are principled officials, but they were faced with a House committed to the plan worked out by railroad labor and management. So, they tried to make the best of a very bad situation.
Hastert asked Daniels whether he would go along with scoring the bill so that it reflected no revenue loss. In return, Daniels asked the speaker to go along with a few "minor tweaks" to the bill, removing some objectionable features.
That bargain was fine with Hastert, but not its principal sponsor: Rep. Don Young of Alaska, a stereotypical congressional old bull who heads the pork-dispensing House Transportation Committee. No compromise, said Young. Why should he when the bill was sponsored by 355 of the 435 House members? Phony bookkeeping remains, though not ratified by the administration.
Just before August's adjournment, the bill was brought up in the evening amid massive inattention from press and public. In the desultory debate, Young insisted that $15 billion withdrawn from the Treasury "is not spending." Only two congressmen -- Republicans Sam Johnson of Texas ("Stop this fraud in America") and Nick Smith of Michigan -- rose in opposition.
The vote for passage was 384 to 33, with but two Democrats dissenting. Majority Whip Tom DeLay was the only member of the Republican leadership in opposition. The only committee chairmen voting no were James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin (Judiciary) and Bill Thomas of California (Ways and Means).
The founding fathers intended the Senate to block outrages perpetrated by the House, and it still fulfills that function when determined senators mobilize rules meant for obstruction. Three Republican senators -- Don Nickles of Oklahoma, Phil Gramm of Texas and Pete Domenici of New Mexico -- are ready to tie up the Senate if need be. The claim that the bill costs nothing, Minority Whip Nickles told me, "is about as phony as anything we can do."
The question is what Kent Conrad and the other Democratic budget hawks will do. If he remains a sponsor of the great train robbery of 2001, it will indicate how serious he really is about fiscal discipline in Washington.