Commentary

A History of Broken Promises

By Stephen Slivinski
This article was published in National Review Online, May 7, 2004.

Just three years ago this month, the Capitol was filled with self-congratulation about the passage of the blueprint of President Bush’s first budget. House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle proclaimed the passage of the fiscal 2002 budget resolution a “victory,” and publicly announced it was a plan that “curb[s] government spending.” Senator Trent Lott called it a “first step in a process that will lead to responsible government [and] fiscal restraint.” The future looked bright for fiscal conservatives.

What happened? Republicans in Congress simply could not resist the temptation to break their own promises of spending restraint. Indeed, the history of the GOP’s broken promises is instructive, and doesn’t bode well for the fate of the current budget blueprint being debated in Congress.

Every year, the budget resolution creates spending “caps” that are supposed to set the upper limit on discretionary spending. So-called “mandatory” programs — which make up over 60 percent of the federal budget and include programs like Social Security and Medicare — are not subject to the caps.

Besides, the discretionary caps are often regarded as spending floors instead of ceilings. Comparing the originally agreed-upon caps to final spending numbers from the White House, it’s easy to see that Congress busted the 2002 cap by $51 billion and the 2003 cap by $44 billion. According to preliminary estimates, the original 2004 cap could be exceeded by $47 billion by the end of this year.

The entire spending spree cannot be blamed on increased defense spending. About 62 percent of the budget busting is due to increased defense discretionary spending between 2001 and 2003. The remaining 38 percent is due to domestic spending bloat.

Perhaps the worst part is that the so-called “caps” were hardly keeping Congress leashed to an austere budget in the first place. In fact, the caps go up in each new budget resolution. This problem has persisted for at least the past five years under the GOP Congress, before the presidency of George W. Bush and also before September 11. If the limits in each budget resolution between 1999 and 2003 had been maintained, discretionary spending would have grown by 43 percent. Instead, actual discretionary spending grew by 50 percent. The 7-percentage point difference amounts to a grand total of $183 billion in money that Congress promised it would not spend.

The increases in discretionary spending are the largest since the late 1960s. If fiscal conservatives today lament that modern-day Republicans are acting more like pre-Reagan Democrats, they’re right.

There are many explanations for how the budget promises were broken. Foremost is that overturning the budget caps is relatively easy; all that is needed in the Senate is a three-fifths majority or a simple majority in the House. If there’s a bipartisan consensus about anything on Capitol Hill today, it’s about the desire to spend more taxpayer money.

In the House, waiving the caps for appropriations bills is a common occurrence. Just last year, the budget rules were waived for the appropriations bills of the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Interior, the Defense construction bill, the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and—perhaps not surprisingly—the bill funding the operations of the U.S. Congress. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the current version of the budget resolution that would make it harder to ignore the rules again this year.

So-called “emergency spending” is one of the biggest culprits of the budget bloat. This type of spending is not subject to the caps, which creates a convenient loophole for big spenders. The emergency distinction has been abused dramatically in the last few years — for instance, in the 2000 budget the constitutionally mandated decennial Census was treated as an unexpected expense. Between 1999 and 2002, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that Congress spent $154 billion on so-called “emergencies,” only a fraction of which can honestly be worthy of the distinction.

There are plenty of changes that need to be made to the budget process. In the meantime, the GOP Congress should do more than make hollow promises. If a budget blueprint finally passes this month, congressional leaders will sing the praises of its promised budget restraint. But if past actions are any indication, there is little to suggest that they will keep their word.

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