A Fiscal Free‐​For‐​All In Congress

December 1, 2000 • Commentary

Back in July, my Cato Institute colleague Steve Slivinski and I released a study warning that this Congress was on pace to be the biggest‐​spending Congress since the late 1970s. Our study was widely publicized, and infuriated Republicans on Capitol Hill accused us of exaggerating the budget buildup. House majority whip Tom DeLay and others insisted that the spending spree in Congress this fall would not be as financially reckless as our report predicted.

Well, they were right. The fiscal mess on Capitol Hill isn’t as bad as we thought it would be: It’s actually a lot worse. As Republicans prepare to wrap up their legislative work for the year, they are set to approve spending bills for next year that will exceed their own spending caps by a whopping $98 billion. That’s more money than we spent on the entire Gulf War.

What’s even more depressing–and truly inexcusable for a party that professes fiscal conservatism–is that the GOP has managed to outspend even President Clinton’s original budget request, by $20 billion. Or, to state the point more emphatically: Taxpayers would be much better off if Republicans had simply rubber‐​stamped every Clinton administration spending request back in February and then adjourned for the rest of the year. At the start of the year, the White House requested $620 billion for discretionary programs. The Republicans are set to approve $640 billion. Congressional Quarterly now reports that by the time Congress adjourns, GOP appropriators could end up spending over $650 billion.

Pick your favorite example of a worthless or counterproductive nanny‐​state program and I can almost assure you it’s getting more money this year. The Legal Services Corporation for left‐​wing lawyers? Up $20 million. The NEA? Up $7 million. Amtrak? Forget privatization–Congress just gave them a $3.3 billion bailout.

No bill is uglier than the agriculture‐​funding legislation. The celebrated Freedom to Farm legislation of 1996 was supposed to phase out crop and dairy subsidies over five to seven years so that farmers could finally produce for the market rather than Uncle Sam. But that legislation has now been officially eviscerated.

This year’s $78 billion farm bill is by far the most expensive in history. Florida citrus and lime growers will get $58 million in payments; the famous wool and mohair subsidy has been resurrected, so that Vermont sheep herders will get $20 million in renewed handouts this year; apple and potato farmers get $138 million; Connecticut oystermen will get an emergency bailout; and the loan program for Florida sugar‐​plantation owners has been made more generous than ever. Aggrieved avocado farmers in California will now receive funds from a new tax on imported avocados. (The tax dollars generated from this tax “will be used to fund research and marketing campaigns in favor of avocado consumption.”) The bill even allocates $1.6 billion over the next five years for increasing food‐​stamp payments, thus further eroding a key provision of the successful welfare‐​reform effort.

Other last‐​minute budget bills are also larded up with indefensible new spending. There’s $20 billion for fattened Medicare subsidies, another $3.6 billion in farm emergency funding, and $6 billion extra for veterans’ health‐​care benefits. The transportation bill pipelines an extra $75 million to Salt Lake City for the Olympic village. This brings the federal taxpayer cost of the 2002 Winter Games to $1.3 billion, and counting. Meanwhile, the $15 billion foreign‐​aid bill is so crammed with statist approaches to economic development that liberal Democrats like Nancy Pelosi have been boasting: “The money we are talking about can accommodate many of our needs.”

In a genuinely stomach‐​turning development, congressional Republicans have trumpeted as one of their “accomplishments” that they will spend several hundred million more dollars for the Department of Education than Bill Clinton requested. This department’s budget has grown by more than 35 percent since 1996. Many school‐​aid programs are faring a lot better under a Republican Congress than they did under the Democrats.

There’s a reason for this: Fiscal conservatives in Congress are becoming an endangered species. The National Taxpayers Union recently reported that in this Congress, only two members have voted to cut the budget more than to increase it: Republican congressmen James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Ron Paul of Texas. Republicans and Democrats are now sponsoring seven bills to raise federal spending for every bill they propose to cut the budget.

So why can’t Republicans restrain their fiscal appetites? Almost every Capitol Hill Republican I talked to believes that fiscal conservatives are losing the battle because of the politics of budget surpluses. “For the last 20 years, the budget deficit was our one line of defense for restraint on spending,” says Wayne Struble, chief of staff of John Kasich’s House Budget Committee. “Now that fence is gone and there are effectively no restraints left.” Rep. Joe Scarborough of Florida agrees. He remembers that when he first ran for Congress in 1994 the $200 billion budget deficit was prima facie evidence to voters that the government was too big and too intrusive. “Now,” he says, “the case for cutting government just comes down to philosophy. It’s a tougher sell.”

Indeed it is. One lesson here is that if Republicans don’t start hacking away at taxes, these budget surpluses are going to lead the nation into bankruptcy. So far, for every dime of tax cuts from the budget surpluses, spending has gone up by a dollar.

Republicans do themselves no favors when they let themselves be seen as raiders of the treasury. From 1999 to 2001, total federal social spending will have risen by almost 14 percent. When I showed the study on these spending trends in Congress to my neighbor, Democratic senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, he triumphantly declared: “I keep telling you, Steve, it’s the Republicans who are the big spenders these days.”

It’s getting harder to rebut Dorgan’s point.

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