Commentary

Congress Should Make Some Sacrifices, Too

By Stephen Slivinski
This article appeared in Newsday on Sept. 16, 2005.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, millions of Americans did what they always do when presented with heartbreaking stories of lives destroyed. They donated to various private charities in record numbers. As the Chronicle of Philanthropy recently reported, Americans have voluntarily donated at least $400 million to the hurricane relief effort so far. When corporate and other donations are included, Americans and businesses have together donated close to $740 million to the hurricane relief effort so far. For those donating, the sacrifice might be small. But it is a sacrifice nonetheless.

Contrast this with the federal government’s financial response. Congress rushed to pass a $10.5 billion emergency relief bill. On September 8, Congress piled on an additional $51.8 billion. Total relief expenditures are expected to climb to $150 billion.

Yet none of that spending is going to be offset by budget cuts elsewhere. The Associated Press reported that the White House Office of Management and Budget director Joshua Bolten has already dismissed spending cuts to offset even some of the emergency spending as not “practically realistic.”

Perhaps this attitude is not surprising. The White House and Congress couldn’t seem to find offsetting savings over the past few years to finance the occupation of Iraq, an operation that has been financed largely by “emergency” appropriations bills even though many of the costs were anticipated. The message to taxpayers is clear: While many American families are sacrificing for others, it’s just too much to expect politicians to strip away some of their pet programs to pay for the expenses to which they’re committing the nation.

The only voices calling for cuts, as in most other spending battles, are Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and John McCain (R-AZ). They’ve called for across-the-board budget cuts to offset the spending on hurricane relief. Coburn has noted what many Americans already know: “Charity requires sacrifice.”

The president has already proposed some small spending cuts in his 2006 budget. These could offset the relief spending in part. The total amount of program terminations in the White House’s 2006 budget proposal amounts to $8.8 billion in savings. Additional cuts add about $6.5 billion. So, a total of over $15 billion could be created simply by enacting the spending cuts that the White House proposed. Better yet, making those cuts retroactive to the current fiscal year would save money immediately, and double the savings. Unfortunately, the Bush administration seemed to give these cuts up without a fight months ago.

Or what about finding savings in the fiscal 2005 omnibus spending bill, which contained over $23 billion in pork projects? Add the cuts the White House requested for 2006, and make them retroactive to 2005, and you instantly have $53 billion in savings already. And that’s before we look at the $24 billion in pork projects over seven years in the recent highway bill.

Finding offsetting budget cuts to pay for disaster relief is obviously not impossible, nor is it unheard of. Relief bills for the 1994 California earthquake and the Oklahoma City bombing were all paid for by offsetting spending cuts.

There’s no reason why money spent on natural disaster relief should not compete with spending in other areas of government. If spending this money is truly necessary than other less essential programs in the budget then those less essential programs should be pared back to make room for it.

Congress does not seem concerned about how the federal government (read: taxpayers) is going to pay for any of this. Yet now is exactly the time to figure that out. Charity does require sacrifice, even from big spending politicians using other people’s money for charitable purposes.

Stephen Slivinski is director of budget studies at the Cato Institute