Commentary

Congress Learns to Spend Again

By Timothy J. Penny and Stephen Moore
This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

As Congress completes work on this year’s spending bills, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish Republicans from the spendthrift Democrats they replaced.

In recent weeks Republican appropriators have produced a torrent of bills that provide some of the largest spending increases in a decade. Spending on the environment, education, housing, health care, foreign aid, training and labor would soar. Scores of outdated and unproductive agencies that were supposedly headed for the federal graveyard when Republicans first came to power have now had their budgets fully replenished.

While many of the appropriations bills — with price tags totaling more than $500 billion — are still being written, the preliminary versions are generous in the extreme. The $270 billion Labor, Health and Human Services bill will cause the combined budgets of the Labor Department, the Education Department and the Department of Health and Human Services to have risen by an astounding 29 percent in just three years.

The budget crafted two years ago by House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich called for the elimination of some 300 major programs that long ago outlived their missions. This year’s budget increases the budgets for many of those programs. In fact, it’s quite possible that when this Congress adjourns in a few weeks, Republicans will not have shut down a single one of the thousands of programs that crowd the budget.

Some of those programs have been allotted more bloated budgets than ever before. The Senate calls for a 35 percent increase for bilingual education, an 8 percent increase for Goals 2000, a 20 percent hike for home heating assistance, a 50 percent increase for public housing and a 5 percent increase for Americorps. The battle over the fate of the National Endowment for the Arts has become a kind of litmus test of the GOP’s resolve to cut spending. The Senate has repudiated fiscal conservatives by approving a 1 percent increase in the NEA’s budget.


The culture of spending in Washington that caused Democrats to finally lose control of Congress in 1994 has triumphed again


Given recent fund-raising scandals, one federal agency ripe for termination is the Department of Commerce. Not only is Congress reneging on shutting down the agency as promised, but GOP appropriators plan to allocate $4.2 billion in 1998 to Commerce, a $300 million increase from 1997. This agency and most other corporate welfare programs have escaped the GOP’s budget knife for the third straight year.

Congress just finished high-profile show trials documenting the Internal Revenue Service’s all-too-routine abuses of taxpayer rights. But that didn’t dissuade a House-Senate budget conference from rewarding the IRS with a $7.6 billion appropriation — 9 percent above last year’s funding level.

Meanwhile, almost every one of the spending bills is crammed with white elephant projects that make a mockery of the GOP promise to deliver smaller and smarter government. The Military Construction Bill funds 103 projects that are wholly unrelated to improving the nation’s national defense, including a $1.4 million ice skating rink and a $300,000 car wash in Fort Wainwright, Alaska — home of Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Ted Stevens. A writer for Congressional Quarterly recently observed that Stevens is turning out to be a bigger pork-barrel spender than his Democrat predecessor, Robert Byrd.

In the House, Bud Shuster’s (R-Pa.) highway bill, now on hold until next year, is a monument to fiscal profligacy. The standing joke in Washington is that no blade of grass is safe while Bud Shuster is Transportation Committee chairman. His bill would exceed even the budget deal’s accommodating spending caps by some $30 billion over the next five years. It includes several hundred special “demonstration” projects — one for nearly every congressional district. Things are seriously off track in Washington when the last defense against runaway spending is Bill Clinton’s line-item veto.

Yet some congressional Republicans have responded to the president’s sensible line-item vetoes by indignantly calling for the repeal of that spending reduction tool. Stevens complains of Clinton’s “abuse of power” in canceling some of Alaska’s cherished projects — projects for which Americans living in the other 49 states would have to pay.

All of this is to say that the culture of spending in Washington that caused Democrats to finally lose control of Congress in 1994 has triumphed again. The powerful political forces that impel Congress to spend tax dollars, rather than save them, have spread like a virus from the Democrats to the Republicans.

Tim Penny is a former Democratic congressman from Minnesota and a fellow in fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute. Stephen Moore is director of fiscal policy studies at Cato.