Over the past year, the danger posed by the escalating growth of federal spending has begun to resonate with the American people. The refusal of both Congress and the Administration to make hard choices and fund only priorities has accelerated the growth of federal spending. But we should give credit where credit is due: the Legislative Branch appropriations bills passed by both the House and Senate are a welcome return to fiscal restraint.
Runaway Federal Spending
In this time of war, free spending on lower priority items is ill-advised, irresponsible, and even dangerous. Federal spending per household has surpassed $20,000 per year, in real terms, for the first time since World War II. Part of the recent increase has been due to increased spending on defense and homeland security, but all sorts of other discretionary programs have received unwarranted increases.
The Legislative Branch is a part of the budget where non-essential spending has grown out of control. Legislative branch appropriations, which provides funds for both houses Congress and its various joint commissions, increased 30 percent over the first three years of the Bush administration. And while the FY 2005 budget proposed by the White House called for fiscal restraint in many areas, ramped-up spending for the Legislative Branch continued. The President's budget requested a 12 percent increase over last year's $3.55 billion appropriation, or more than $400 million in new spending.
The Welcome Sight of Restraint
Congressional appropriators recognized that, with federal spending spiraling out of control, the belt-tightening has to start at home. Early in the appropriations process, during 302 (b) allocations, appropriators held down Legislative Branch funding. By showing a commitment to spending prioritization, they marked the Legislative Branch to receive $3,575 million in FY 2005, an increase of less than $30 million over this year.
Both the House and Senate appropriators have produced bills that come in under this figure. Although the process is complicated by the fact that the House does not budget for the Senate and vice-versa, either bill would accommodate the 302 (b) target, as the following table shows:
If both houses hold fast to their budgeting, the Legislative Branch could actually reduce spending in 2005 and come in more than $500 million under the President's request.
Most of these cuts come from planned increases for the Capitol Police and funding for construction projects like the Capitol Power Plant and the Capitol Visitor's Center. Unfortunately, this means that much of the FY 2005 reduction in spending is not structural and may be offset by additional funding for construction next year. But that is tomorrow's battle; today's news is positive.
Lest we count our chickens before they're hatched, it should be remembered that these bills could be adulterated in the conference report. Nevertheless, kudos to both chairmen, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO), for holding the line on spending. A government-wide, non-defense, non-homeland security spending freeze would be a welcome step towards fiscal health. These appropriators have shown it can be done. All that is needed is the willpower to prioritize.
Keith Miller is a research assistant in, and Alison Acosta Fraser is Director of, the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.