June 23, 1999

June 23, 1999 | Commentary on Federal Budget

Keep the Spending Floodgates Closed

As a rule, political promises carry about as much value as Monopoly money, but is it asking too much to expect congressional leaders to honor the spending limits they agreed to just two years ago? Judging by the aviation bill the House recently approved, which would violate the spending caps by $19 billion over two years, the answer is yes.

But don't expect any criticism from President Clinton. The eulogist-in-chief for "big government" submitted a fiscal year 2000 budget to Congress earlier this year that exceeded the caps by $30 billion.

The lopsided vote in the House-319-110-makes a mockery of politicians' pious statements about curbing the growth of government and reducing taxes. As The Washington Post concluded, the bill "essentially puts airports ahead of other government priorities-such as defense or education-and could suck up the money that GOP lawmakers had wanted to use for a big tax cut this year."

Once the spending floodgates open in Washington, efforts to prune waste and introduce long-overdue reforms are the first things washed away in the deluge, and special interest lobbyists no longer face any obstacle to making sure their clients prosper at the expense of ordinary Americans.

Unfortunately, pressure has been mounting for Congress to abrogate the budget agreement by breaking the caps. The Clinton administration continues its policy of ignoring the agreement by proposing a stream of popular spending plans funded with new taxes or shady accounting. And Congress has been reinventing the English language by using cap-avoiding "emergency" appropriations (since when are farm subsidies an emergency?) to shield certain budget items from the regular approval process.

It's not too late for congressional leaders to honor their commitments, but they must act now. Paring back the aviation bill in the Senate would be a good start. But if pledges to control spending are not to be viewed cynically by most Americans, Congress must adhere firmly to the budget caps and block creative accounting tricks to avoid them, such as shuffling funds among different government accounts as it did with the aviation bill. Raising the caps would be a disaster for taxpayers and every American who desires a federal government that is reasonably efficient and carries out only its appropriate functions.

Despite the pressure lawmakers now face to break the caps, there are several steps they can take to forestall another spending spree. To begin, they can eliminate wasteful or duplicative programs. A host of "corporate pork" programs exist because narrow but vehement business interests defend them. The Fossil Energy Research program, for example, uses taxpayer money to subsidize the research costs of oil, gas and coal companies.

Some programs have outlived their usefulness or are wasteful, such as the $9,000-per-employee furniture costs at the proposed new U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Others could be consolidated or eliminated, such as the Department of Energy's national laboratories, which duplicate much private-sector research. Such programs reflect neither the needs of ordinary Americans nor the political philosophy or agenda of either party. They form the "A list" that lawmakers who are serious about efficient government should pledge to cut.

Congress can also generate savings by shifting programs to states. The aviation bill offers a perfect opportunity to transfer all funding and spending decisions for airports to the state level. And there's no reason federal highway programs can't be turned over to the states as well, along with the authority to impose the fuel taxes that help fund them.

In addition, lawmakers can do themselves a favor by beginning this year to reform major entitlement programs. If they think they're having trouble sticking to budget caps in an era of surpluses, wait until the bills come due for Social Security and Medicare, which will explode in cost in the not-so-distant future. Addressing the fundamental flaws in these programs may not yield immediate savings, but lawmakers will have spared themselves even greater fiscal headaches down the road.

Congress stands at a crossroads in the battle to restrain the size of the federal government while saving Social Security and returning Washington's tax windfall to the American people. Right now, it is on course to do none of these things. Only by reviving its sense of purpose and challenging the president will it be able to avoid more spending, more taxes and greater public cynicism.

Stuart Butler is vice president for domestic and economic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation(www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Distributed nationally by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service