Commentary

GOP Budget Busters

By Stephen Moore
January 20, 1998

The latest press release from the White House Budget Office proclaims that total federal expenditures will rise by “only” $70 billion in 1998. That single-year increase exceeds the combined income of all residents of the state of Kansas. In fact, there are 14 states with combined personal incomes of less than $70 billion. And that’s just the increase in spending in 1998. The total federal budget now exceeds the combined family budgets of every household in America living west of Colorado.

Happy new year!

Who’s responsible for this spending binge? To suggest that congressional Republicans share any part of the blame is to invite a look of disbelief from party faithfuls. Yes, the budget is loaded with gobs of new social spending, concedes Newt Gingrich. But, he says, Bill Clinton made us do it. We are also told that $70 billion was the ransom the GOP had to pay to get a tax cut in 1997.

Few people would argue with the proposition that this president is fond of spending other people’s money. When Bill Clinton took office Washington spent $300 billion less than it does today. And Republicans are co-conspirators in this year’s budget build-up. Last February Bill Clinton asked Congress for $1.688 trillion to operate the government — a truly audacious sum that was ridiculed by fiscal conservatives. Yet the final budget approved by Congress somehow managed to exceed the Clinton request by $4 billion. Can a president politically blackmail Congress into spending more money than he himself asked for?

I recently plowed through last year’s 13 appropriation bills and found further evidence of GOP profligacy. While it is true that in most cases the total dollar amount of those spending bills was lower than the president’s request, there were dozens of programs for which the budget approved by Congress was more than the White House had sought (see table).

For example, the $7.6 billion bilateral foreign aid bill, the most expensive in history, contains $200 million more for ineffectual Agency for International Development (AID) assistance funds and $100 million more for the State Department than the White House sought. Michael Prowse of the Financial Times recently noted that America would do much more to promote global prosperity if it dropped millions of copies of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations out of airplanes flying over Third World nations than it does by bribing corrupt regimes with foreign aid. GOP appropriators apparently disagree.

One of the largest dispensers of corporate welfare in the budget is the Export-Import Bank. Rather than end that aid to K Street corporate welfare queens, Congress appropriated $680 million for the bank, $50 million more than the Clinton budget demanded.

The 105th Congress seems intent on proving it’s as green as the Sierra Club by outspending Clinton and Gore on environmental programs. Hence, even though the government already owns more than one-third of the land area of the United States, GOP appropriators approved $206 million for Interior Department land acquisitions—almost twice what Clinton and Gore wanted. The GOP was also more generous than the Clinton White House to the Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and selected farm programs.

The labor, health and education bill was the fiscal equivalent of the Alamo for conservatives. Home heating assistance, a program that Reagan and David Stockman tried to exterminate 16 years ago when the energy crisis ended, gets $100 million more than the Clinton budget request. Something called the School Improvement Program (who could be against that?) was slated for termination in 1995 but now gets $200 million more than our education president wanted. School districts with military bases will receive $150 million more in Impact Aid than Clinton requested, even though communities raise holy hell if Congress attempts to close bases. There is also more money than Clinton sought for libraries, AIDS research, refugee assistance, subsidized housing, Head Start, education research and even the Food and Drug Administration.

Two of the biggest embarrassments for the GOP are the budgets for the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Community Development Block Grant program. The ARC helps fund such vital infrastructure projects as a football field, used as a practice facility for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, in one of the richest counties in South Carolina. For 20 years CDBGs have been Congress’s most notorious urban slush fund. This year Congress rewarded the ARC with a $10 million budget increase — $5 million more than Clinton wanted. CDBGs were awarded $75 million more than Clinton requested.

My estimate is that in total Congress spent almost $5 billion more on 35 domestic programs than the White House requested. Explain that, Mr. Gingrich.

Here’s my explanation. After three years of Republican control of the appropriations process, Congress has reverted to what it was for 40 years under the Democrats: a fiscal swamp where parochial pork-barrel concerns override the national interest and the constitutional constraints on spending are routinely subverted. An R or a D next to an appropriator’s name has become essentially irrelevant.

If the Republican Party is still committed to making government smarter and smaller, my advice for GOP leaders is to pledge that in 1998 Bill Clinton’s budget requests will become ceilings, not floors, for Republican appropriators. If Republicans can’t, at the very least, promise to spend less on social programs than Bill Clinton wants, then the era of big government is here to stay for a very long time.

Where the GOP Outspends Clinton FY 1998 (Millions of Dollars)
Clinton Request GOP Appropriation
Health Resources and Services $3,266 $3,618
Ryan White AIDs Program 1,036 1,150
Home Heating Assistance 1,000 1,100
Refugee Assistance 392 415
Community Service Block Grants 415 491
Child Care Block Grant 1,000 1,003
Head Start 4,305 4,355
Programs for the Aging 838 865
Impact Aid 658 808
School Improvement 1,299 1,538
Special Education 4,210 4,811
Libraries 136 146
Education Research 391 431
HOME Program 1,309 1,500
Distressed Public Housing 524 550
Federal Housing Admin. 196 201
Community Development Grants 4,600 4,675
NASA 13,500 13,648
AID development funds 998 1,210
State Department programs 964 1,068
Export Import Bank 630 680
Fish and Wildlife Service 688 745
National Park Service 1,599 1,647
Interior Dept. Land Acquisition 115 206
Fossil Energy R&D 346 362
Interior Dept. Geological Survey 745 759
Agriculture Research Service 786 825
Agriculture Extension Service 418 424
Agriculture Research & Education 422 431
Rural Community Devel. Loans 5,870 6,025
P.L. 480 Food for Peace 967 1,063
Food and Drug Administration 820 925
Energy Dept. Science & Research 876 2,236
Power Marketing Administration 237 241
Appalachian Regional Commission 165 170
TOTAL 55,421 60,322
Total Excess Over Clinton Request: $4,901
Stephen Moore is director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute.