September 20, 2004

September 20, 2004 | Commentary on

Legislative Lowdown

Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, New York's other liberal Democratic senator, Chuck Schumer, predicted confidently that: "The next few years will. . . closely resemble the mid-1930s, when federal power dramatically increased. "Americans, he argued, are "willing to cede more authority and dollars to Washington." Schumer theorized that conservative leaders in Congress would initially resist, but eventually "will be fighting an increasingly desperate rear-guard action" against the return of big government.

Schumer has to be credited with a certain prescience. Three years later, the federal government is larger not only in dollar terms but also as a percentage of the economy. Surprisingly, however, it is some conservatives who have mounted that "rear-guard action" envisioned by Schumer.

New York Times columnist David Brooks hypothesized: "Just as socialism will no longer be the guiding goal for the left, reducing the size of government cannot be the governing philosophy for the next generation of conservatives." Echoing Brooks, conservative economist Bruce Bartlett sounded a reluctant call for appeasement in the Los Angeles Times and Fortune magazine. "There is no longer any hope," Bartlett complained, "of holding the line on government growth." Given that the U.S. is moving inexorably toward European levels of spending, he believes that ultimately "we will have to tax like them too." Congress and the presidential candidates, he says, should be "debating how best to raise revenues rather than pretending the issue can be avoided." That a spirited supply-sider such as Bartlett has reached this point of despair is a wake-up call for all conservatives.

Is the return to big government really inevitable? There is no better time to assess than now, as Congress does its annual budget work.

Sadly, even the President's modest goal to freeze domestic spending at last year's level may prove too daunting a challenge in this election year. This shortcoming flows mostly from the Senate's insatiable appetite for spending, and its willingness to use budget chicanery to accomplish its big-government goals. Two examples:

  • Big spenders typically exploit the budgetary rule that allows Congress to exempt "emergency" spending from approved spending caps by designating routine spending items as emergencies. This year, Senate appropriators freed up an additional $1.2 billion in funding for agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency by designating entirely predictable veterans' medical care as "emergency spending." (To their credit, House appropriators opted instead to reduce spending in other programs by 2%.)

    With a second bill to assist with hurricane-related costs in Florida and elsewhere moving forward this week, members have begun adding their pet projects to this speeding legislative train. Citrus growers are lobbying to include economic recovery aid, Western farmers want drought assistance, and sundry others are looking to hitch a ride on this "must pass" bill.

  • Another trick is to move spending from one fiscal year to another. Senate appropriators led by Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D.-Iowa) intend to exploit this loophole and boost spending on education and medical research by shifting $3.2 billion in payments to the low-income elderly and disabled to Fiscal Year 2006.

    Proponents of big government misuse the end-of-the-year appropriations process in other ways as well. Here again are two examples:

  • Last year, the Bush Administration issued a rule that would permit it to shift as many as 425,000 federal jobs to the private sector, double the current level. Under enormous pressure from federal employee unions, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D.-Md.) has won Senate committee elimination of this initiative. Her House counterparts have imposed severe limits on which government jobs could be shifted to the private sector. Prospects appear dim, but lawmakers should realize the savings could be enormous. The Department of Defense has privatized 81,000 civilian and military positions since 1978, with an average savings of 33%.

  • Another small-government initiative under attack is the President's proposal to end the practice of "pay parity" between federal military and civilian workers. President Bush and many Republicans want military personnel to receive significantly larger pay raises (3.5%) than their brethren in civilian government bureaucracies. Unfortunately, apologists for federal workers always seem to prevail in their quest to equate even the most unproductive federal bureaucrat with our courageous military personnel. House appropriator Ernest Istook (R.-Okla.) estimates that since 1996 pay parity has raised the salaries of federal bureaucrats by 12.5% above the increase in the consumer price index, amounting to unwarranted raises totaling $12.5 billion annually.

    Quite a dismal picture, isn't it?

    The good news is that fiscal conservatives, especially those in the House, are fully engaged and believe that the final weeks of this session give them an opportunity to beat back the big spenders. They will insist there be offsetting spending cuts to pay for much of the "emergency" spending; they are working to stop the creation of new programs, such as a proposed $83-million suicide-prevention grant program. And they are endeavoring to pass a year-long "continuing resolution" that would freeze domestic spending at last year's level and in one fell swoop, eliminate all the budgetary smoke-and-mirrors described above. All told, a good start.

    Conservatives on Capitol Hill should take seriously the warnings that the era of big government is back, take the initiative, remember Winston Churchill's admonition to "Never give in"--and prove them wrong.

Mr. Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies