Commentary

The New Austerity

Item: “White House budget officials … pleaded with lawmakers to provide more money for top White House priorities. These included the president’s Millennium Challenge foreign aid initiative, manned and robotic missions in space, research on hydrogen-fueled vehicles, and the Marriages and Healthy Families program, which supports teenage sexual abstinence and responsible fatherhood.”

Sounds like Bill Clinton, doesn’t it — more foreign aid, hydrogen-powered cars, federal programs on marriage and family? But no. This was the Washington Post’s report on the Bush administration’s negotiations with Congress last week.

Even as he claimed he wanted to reduce spending, and as White House officials threatened a veto if the bill was too costly, President Bush and his aides pressed Congress to spend taxpayers’ money on a bevy of unnecessary programs that fall outside the powers granted to the federal government in the Constitution. Even a $500 billion deficit could not dissuade the president from wanting to spend money on ridiculous items.

This pork-barreling is nothing new, of course. Not counting interest payments, federal spending rose 29 percent in three years. Only Lyndon Johnson ever spent taxpayers’ dollars faster than Bush’s first three budgets. Every year the Republican Congress spent more money than the president requested, but Bush didn’t veto a single appropriations bill.

But don’t look across the aisle to the Democrats for fiscal sanity. During the presidential campaign, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said that the Iraq war was costing us $200 billion — money that we could not invest in “education and health care, job creation here at home.” Democrats still think that’s a good line of analysis.

Just last week, Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) said in House debate, “For $10 billion we could fully fund IDEA [the federal special-education act]. It’s just a question of priorities.” He said the Bush administration may ask for an additional $75 billion for Iraq next year and with only “a fraction of that amount we could fully fund IDEA.”

Now, it may well have been a bad idea to invade Iraq, and anyone who thinks that would certainly think that it’s tragic to spend $200 billion on an unnecessary war. But Sen. Kerry and Rep. Kind both voted to authorize the war. What did they think? That it would be free?

This posture is simply childish and unworthy of elected members of Congress. Actions have consequences. If you vote for a war, you have to pay for it. You can’t vote for a war and then complain that you’d rather spend the money on special education and make-work jobs.

National defense is the fundamental responsibility of the federal government. Members of Congress have an obligation to decide what is needed for our national defense before showering their constituents with other programs and subsidies. If Kerry and Kind believed (as I did) that the Iraq war was not essential to our national defense, then they should have voted against it. But they can’t simply propose to cut funding for essential defense needs in order to pay for welfare, local schools, medical care subsidies, or hydrogen-powered automobiles.

Republicans, meanwhile, have given the president all the billions he’s requested for the war and huge spending increases in the education, labor, transportation, and commerce departments. Major newspapers have called the 1,000-page budget bill “tight,” “austere,” and “stingy” because it involves smaller increases in spending than the great leaps forward of the past few years.

Yet this allegedly austere bill managed to allocate money to such projects as the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville ($250,000), the construction of an additional lane to the off-ramp of the northbound Ventura Freeway at Van Nuys Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles ($1 million), and the purchase of a former presidential yacht for a museum ($2 million).

Republicans spend taxpayers’ money like there’s no tomorrow, and Democrats complain that they’re being stingy. What’s a poor fiscal conservative to do?

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer (Free Press, 1998).