Commentary

The Spend-Too-Much Congress

By Stephen Slivinski
July 28, 2000
Vice President Gore has accused the House and Senate leadership of presiding over a “do-nothing Congress.” If only that were true.

In reality, the Republicans should be accused of presiding over a spend-too-much Congress. The GOP majority is well on its way to matching the spending of the late 1970s, when Tip O’Neill was speaker of the House and Jimmy Carter was in the Oval Office. Back then, the 95th Congress (1977-78) boosted the non-defense domestic budget by 12 percent after inflation. Now the 106th Congress is happy to expand it by at least 11 percent after inflation, and that’s before the election-year spending spree they’re sure to embark on.

They even brag about it. The fact that the Republicans outspent President Clinton on education programs in the 2000 budget was mentioned prominently in their televised response to Clinton’s State of the Union speech in January. The current crop of Republicans is behaving more like pre-Reagan Democrats than like the “revolutionary” Republicans who vowed to shrink the federal budget five years ago.

A major reason for this budget bloat is the inability or unwillingness of the GOP to eliminate virtually any government program. When Republicans stormed into Congress, they vowed to abolish more than 200 programs and three cabinet agencies. But while real domestic discretionary spending declined in the first year of the Republican Congress, the budget slashing stopped there. Since that time the domestic budget has grown at an increasingly rapid pace.

Republicans deserve credit for closing down programs such as the Travel and Tourism Administration and the Bureau of Mines. But the combined savings from all program terminations since 1995 have been less than $10 billion a year, or barely 1 percent of the federal discretionary budget. Today many of the programs on the GOP hit list have fatter budgets than they had when the Democrats controlled Congress. The combined budgets of 95 of the biggest programs on that list have increased by 13 percent over the past five years.

The GOP majority has been all too willing to vote for increases in most of the programs they once vowed to cut, many of which are pet projects of President Clinton. Take AmeriCorps, which costs taxpayers about $12 for every hour “volunteered.” Its budget has grown by 248 percent since 1995.

Or consider the fate over the past five years of many of the education programs that have been favorites of the president. Goals 2000 grew by 112 percent. Ready to Learn television grew by 129 percent. The 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which actually were abolished for a year in 1996, have roared back to life with a budget of $453 million, 400 times bigger than before.

Or consider the Community Development Block Grant program, a perennial vehicle for congressional pork-barrel projects. It received an 11 percent increase over the 1995 budget. This year the program will provide half a million dollars to revitalize a shopping mall in California and another half a million dollars for the Springfield Library and Museum Association in Massachusetts to build a memorial and park honoring Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss).

When the 2000 budget was wrapped up and record levels of domestic spending were approved, House Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, one of the more fiscally conservative Republicans in Congress, actually boasted: “The Republican Party is charging into this election year after a season of overwhelming success. This year’s budget will prove to be a milestone on the road to good government far into the future.”

If this is the way the GOP defines success, one shudders to think what failure would cost. It seems clear that there is now a bipartisan consensus in the Clinton White House and the Republican Congress that the era of big government is here to stay.

Stephen Slivinski is a fiscal policy analyst at the Cato Institute and co-author of the new Cato study “Return of the Living Dead: Programs that Survived the Republican Revolution.”