March 22, 2005

March 22, 2005 | Commentary on Federal Budget

Legislative Lowdown -- Week of March 21st

The Senate added to its recent string of conservative successes on March 16 when it rejected an effort by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D.-Wash.) to prevent oil and natural gas drilling on a tiny parcel of the expansive stretch of frozen desert in Alaska known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Fifty-one senators, including three Democrats, voted to keep the door open to drilling in ANWR after a heated floor debate on Cantwell's amendment to the annual budget resolution. (See roll call vote on HumanEventsOnline.com.)

With this vote, the decades-long struggle to enhance America's energy independence cleared a major hurdle. In the months ahead, the energy committees in both the House and Senate are expected to give oil firms the legislative green light to begin exploring and developing the estimated 16-billion barrels of oil lying under the frozen tundra. What has free-market energy experts contemplating victory after two decades of trying is the likelihood that congressional leaders will attach the ANWR legislation to so-called "reconciliation" legislation. Reconciliation bills contain a mix of provisions designed to meet the spending and revenue targets set forth in the budget resolution. Reconciliation bills require only a simple majority and are not subject to unlimited debate.

It's worth noting that the recent string of successes in the Senate is directly attributable to conservative victories last November. Senators Mel Martinez of Florida, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Jim DeMint of South Carolina all replaced liberals who steadfastly opposed oil and natural gas development in Alaska and virtually everywhere else. Sen. John Thune (S.D.) replaced an ANWR foe as well.

America's energy future hasn't looked this bright in many years.

Holding the Line

With one major exception, new Senate Budget Chairman Judd Gregg (R.-N.H.), managed to fend off a flurry of efforts by Senate liberals to undermine what may be the most conservative budget in a decade.

Gregg convinced his colleagues to turn back, on a nail-biter of a 50-50 vote, an effort by Sen. Russ Feingold (D.-Wis.) to restore a Senate budget rule that would make it all but impossible to extend President Bush's tax cuts. Gregg also held the line against efforts to add billions in new spending on veterans, health research, education, first responders and Amtrak. (However, in a St. Patrick's Day surprise, Sen. Gordon Smith (R.-Ore.) was able to rebuff the modest effort by Gregg and other reformers to rein in runaway Medicaid spending.)

Throughout the weeklong debate over the 2006 budget, Gregg did a splendid job of reminding his Senate colleagues of what was at stake. Senate Democrats offered no formal alternative to the Republican blueprint, Gregg pointed out, but an astute observer could nevertheless piece together their overall vision for the size and scope of government in 2006 and beyond by looking at the dozen or so amendments Democrats offered during the Budget Committee's markup.

"They did put forward a proposal," he insisted, "and it was your classic tax-and-spend budget, $229 billion in new spending and... potentially $270 billion in new taxes [over the next five years]." Gregg then summed up the differences between the two parties: "You cannot on one hand talk about need for fiscal responsibility when on the other hand you are proposing $229 billion of new spending. You cannot discipline the federal government by raising spending."

Supplemental Antics

Budget watchdogs have grown increasingly frustrated by the tactic of big spenders to classify even the most routine categories of spending as "emergencies." Whenever this frustration surfaces, however, the spenders note that the definition of what qualifies as a real emergency is in the eye of the beholder.

The most recent round of frustration erupted when the President sent Congress a request for more than $81 billion in additional funding for operations in Iraq and foreign aid and asked that it be classified as emergency spending.

In a carefully guarded report, however, the Congressional Budget Office cast this spending in a new and less favorable light. The report looked at how much of these so-called emergency funds would actually be spent in the current fiscal year, how much next year, and how much would be spent as far out as 2012.

According to the CBO, only $32.1 billion would actually be spent on a fast-track basis in the current fiscal year, and most of that would head to the Pentagon. The sheer magnitude of the so-called "out-year" spending--the spending that would occur in 2006 and beyond--caused many conservative budget experts to conclude that the process had been abused.

More than $30 billion would be spent in 2006, another $13 billion in 2007, $3.8 billion in 2008, $1.3 billion in 2009, and almost $800 million in 2010 and beyond. The $6.3 billion in additional foreign aid spending raised the most eyebrows, with over half being spent in 2007 or later.

House leaders shaved some of this spending--almost entirely in the foreign aid section--off its version of the bill. Once again, alas, Congress appears willing to acquiesce in sidestepping a budget process designed to provide limits on the unquenchable thirst for spending. Mr. Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation. 
 
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

Related Issues: Federal Budget

First appeared in Human Events