Commentary

Fundamental Reforms Needed

By Stephen Slivinski
This article appeared in the Press-Enterprise, November 19, 2005.
One thing we know for sure: Without fundamental reforms in the process by which the federal budget is written every year, any successful efforts to reduce spending will be short-lived.

Instituting a cap on all spending that cannot be waived without a supermajority vote of both houses of Congress would finally force our elected officials to prioritize government spending.

The Congressional Budget Office in August released revised data that can be used to make side-by-side comparisons of the spending habits of U.S. presidents. The data show that President Bush has been the biggest spender of the past 40 years.

In fact, during Bush’s first term, he spent more on nonentitlement programs than President Lyndon B. Johnson did during his entire presidency (1963-69).

After adjusting for inflation and duration in office, the data show that the growth rate of nonentitlement spending in Bush’s first term (8 percent per year) is much higher than Johnson’s real annual spending rate on these programs during his entire tenure in office (4.6 percent per year).

What’s worse is that these numbers do not include the costs of aid to the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the proposed rebuilding of areas hit by the storm. Most of those expenses — which currently total about $62 billion — will be added to the taxpayers’ tab in fiscal year 2006, which began Oct. 1.

What the numbers include are billions of dollars in spending for the war on terrorism and overseas military operations.

A recent Congressional Research Service report estimates the cost of the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (which include the expense of military operations, reconstruction and enhanced security at defense bases) totaled $304 billion by the end of 2005.

Defenders of the president claim that most of the growth in the defense and nonentitlement budget under Bush so far derives from the war on terrorism and the operations in Iraq. But war-related spending accounts for no more than 16 percent of all defense spending during Bush’s entire first term. In the wake of Katrina, fiscally conservative members of Congress have forced the president and the GOP leadership to admit they have a spending problem. At the very least, Republican leaders have publicly claimed that offsetting the costs of relief to Katrina victims is important. How much of these expenses will be offset remains to be seen.

The adoption of two simple reforms could go a long way toward putting a leash on big government:

The first is a strong cap on federal spending — allowing the budget to grow no faster than population plus inflation.

The second is a supermajority requirement that forces those who want to spend more than the cap to win the votes of two-thirds of Congress.

Currently, budget caps can be overturned by a simple majority, and sometimes caps are waived by the GOP leadership.

But there’s no reason why money spent on natural-disaster relief or military operations overseas should not compete with spending in other areas of government. If spending money on those items is truly necessary unlike other less essential programs in the budget — such as corporate welfare programs and pork projects in the highway bill — then those less-essential programs should be pared back to make room for them. In a $2.4 trillion budget, there are plenty of programs that can use some cost cutting.

Republicans still claim they are the party of small government, but their actions during the past four years strain the credibility of that claim.

If the GOP wanted to make a lasting contribution to fiscal discipline, it would cut spending now and put a real cap on future budgets.

Stephen Slivinski is director of budget studies at the Cato Institute.