June 27, 2005

June 27, 2005 | Commentary on

Legislative Lowdown -- Week of June 27th

Kudos to Rep. Chris Chocola (R.-Ind.) for his amendment to end NASA's inane "artist in residence" program.

NASA officials had actually commissioned a performance artist to perform a theatrical story-telling piece as part of a NASA outreach effort and to produce a film on the moons of the solar system. Though minuscule in comparison to the multi-trillion-dollar federal budget-the program consumed but $50,000-Chocola correctly characterized it as being inconsistent with NASA's mission and "a symptom of a bigger problem" relating to ballooning federal spending. 

Unbelievably, two senior Democrats rose to defend the NASA arts program. Rep. Alan Mollohan (D.-W.Va.), one of the most senior House appropriators, dismissed Chocola's concerns because they involve an "awfully little bit of money." Mollohan claimed that NASA ought to have an arts program, pointing to the "beautiful murals and other art initiatives" that grace NASA's facilities. Not to be outdone, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D.-Tex.) compared the inspirational potential of the film to JFK's Camelot and argued that viewing it would convince countless young Americans to pursue graduate degrees in the hard sciences. 

So long as veteran lawmakers such as Mollohan and Jackson Lee see nothing wrong in funneling taxpayer dollars to such bizarre ends-This is how artist Laurie Anderson described her taxpayer-funded film: "It begins with this idea of stuttering and how difficult it is to start things. And it's connected to the rocks in many ways"-efforts to shrink the federal behemoth will flounder. 

Smoke and Mirrors

Once again, the annual appropriations process is under way and, once again, lawmakers are determined to use every accounting trick imaginable to evade the latest spending caps.

The current budget resolution allows Congress to spend up to $843 billion on an enormous range of federal activities-national security, education, housing, transportation, law enforcement, agriculture, etc. House and Senate appropriators have the discretion to allocate a predetermined amount of funds-$843 billion this year-across these activities. 

Rather than allocate sufficient resources to meet our national security needs, appropriators purposefully deny the Pentagon billions in much-needed funding and shift these funds to questionable domestic programs. This year the House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R.-Calif.) shifted $3.3 billion out of Defense spending, while his Senate counterpart, Sen. Thad Cochran (R.-Miss.), slashed the President's proposed Pentagon budget by more than twice that level, $7 billion, and moved it all to the domestic side of government. 

The deceit involved is evident even to Washington's jaded insiders. "No one," Congressional Quarterly observed recently, "expects the Defense Department to do without the funds for long. Supplemental spending bills for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq can more than make up the difference."

Surplus of New Ideas

The latest twist in the continuing saga of Social Security reform involves a creative proposal floated by Sen. Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.) to create a constrained version of personal retirement accounts that would use only the excess funds generated annually by the Social Security payroll tax. His idea quickly caught fire among leading Republicans, both for its substantive integrity and its political attractiveness, and may represent a serious breakthrough. 

The DeMint plan, embraced with a few tweaks by a leading group of conservative Republicans who serve on the House Ways and Means Committee, would end the decades-long practice whereby Congress "borrows" excess Social Security payroll taxes and uses them to pay for other government activities. Rather than underwriting the activities of the Department of Education, the National Endowment of the Arts and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, DeMint and his allies would allow workers to lay claim to their share of the Social Security surplus and place it in personal retirement accounts. 

While media accounts describe this latest development as "the latest blow to Bush," the cash portion of the surplus-DeMint does not count the interest imputed each year to the Social Security trust fund-is no small change, and is expected to exceed $800 billion through 2014. Leading liberal Democrats reacted predictably, denouncing the proposal as "a smaller version of a bad idea" and "the same risky privatization scheme in different packaging." Moderate Democrats, however, appeared to hold their fire, which is why this latest development bears close watching.


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

First appeared in Human Events