The budgetary showdown between President Bush and the Democratic
Congress has entered its final, chaotic week. News reports suggest
that the president, reveling in his highest job approval rating
since April, has scored a momentous political victory.
The headlines are unequivocal: "Democrats Bow to Bush's Demands in House Spending Bill" (The Washington Post). "Dems Cave on Spending" (The Hill). "Intraparty Feuds Dog Democrats, Stall Congress" (The Wall Street Journal). "Bush, GOP Force Dems to Concede on Some Issues" (USA Today).
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, suffering under an in-the-dumps 22% approval rating, have agreed to shave $22 billion off their previous demands for domestic programs. Recalcitrant House Democrats are even willing to concede on the incendiary issue of Iraq war funding -- allowing up to $70 billion to fund the troops, no "exit Iraq" strings attached.
Conservatives, however, must adopt a "trust but verify" attitude toward all this. The first reason to be wary: Never before have so many current and former appropriators served in elected leadership positions in both the House and Senate.
In the Senate, the top two Democrats, Reid and Majority Whip Dick Durbin, are current or former appropriators. The Republican leadership is even more appropriator-laden. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Policy Committee Chairman Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) all currently serve on the Senate's spending committee.
On the House side, the top two Democrats, Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer are former appropriators.
Little wonder, then, why a move by House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey (D-Wisc.) to strip billions of dollars in earmark spending was, according to the Post, "shelved after a bipartisan revolt."
The unmovable anchors on behalf of real fiscal restraint these past few weeks have been those lawmakers lacking appropriations experience. The entire House Republican leadership team, led by House Minority Leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo), as well as new White House Budget Director Jim Nussle, has never been exposed to the temptations of the world of appropriations. And it shows.
The next reason to remain skeptical is the time-honored Capitol Hill habit of using budget chicanery to sneak billions into spending bills. Chief among them is the practice of designating entirely predictable events (such as $100 million for security for next year's political conventions) as unanticipated "emergencies," thereby evading budget caps. Other tricks include moving the dates of receipts or expenditures from one fiscal year to another to generate artificial "savings."
The Republican Study Committee reports that "the latest Democrat omnibus package -- described as meeting the President's top-line spending amount -- is roughly $23 billion above the President's comparable request for domestic spending."
The RSC itemizes that amount as follows:
- $7.4 billion in questionable "emergency spending."
- $3.7 billion in increased funding for veterans programs that the administration has said the president would accept only if Congress "provide[s] reductions in other appropriations bills."
- $2 billion by using the gimmick of advance appropriations.
- $3.5 billion shifted away from under-funded defense priorities to domestic programs.
- $6.4 billion for similarly questionable emergencies already enacted as part of the Pentagon appropriations bill.
With the federal budget now weighing in at an astounding $2.8 trillion, it's time to remind lawmakers that this is, after all, our money. And they need reminding. To Pelosi, the $23 billion that separates the two sides is a "very small difference." Reid complains: "The difference is so small, why [is the president issuing] all these veto threats?" Obey dismissed it as "table scraps."
No, this is real money: $23 billion is more than all the federal income taxes paid by every taxpayer in 2005 in 39 states and the District of Columbia, including the total income tax burden in large states such as Minnesota ($17.1 billion), Arizona ($17 billion), Colorado ($16.7 billion), and Obey's home state of Wisconsin ($15.4 billion). Obey's "table scraps" also dwarf the annual income tax burdens in all but the largest metropolitan areas.
Perhaps Obey and the other profligate spenders in Washington should send personal notes to the residents in these states and cities explaining just how insignificant their tax payments appear to the spending barons of our Capitol.
With Americans so sour on Washington, it's easy to convince them that congressional leaders are misrepresenting the true level of spending and cooking the budget books on behalf of a bigger government.
Message to Congress: Don't go there.
Michael Franc is vice president of government relations for The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
First appeared in Human Events