October 19, 2005
Talk is cheap. The federal response to Hurricanes Katrina and
Rita won't be cheap. Congress now faces a test of political
courage. Will lawmakers have the spine to reprioritize federal
spending, stop hemorrhaging red ink and instead redirect funds
where they're needed most?
During a recent news conference, President Bush sent the right message: "Congress needs to pay for as much of the hurricane relief as possible by cutting spending. I'll work with members of Congress to identify offsets, to free up money for the reconstruction efforts. I will ask them to make even deeper reductions in the mandatory spending programs than are already planned."
He's echoing the message people throughout America have been sending their senators and representatives for weeks. Local grass-roots movements from Montana to Alaska have demanded their lawmakers return money wastefully allocated on pork projects in the recent transportation bill.
The reason for the enthusiasm is obvious: Americans recognize it is irresponsible for members of Congress to spend money on pet projects when those funds would be better spent helping the citizens of the Gulf Region. And it's intolerable that Congress has been more willing to borrow against the future.
Working from Congressional Budget Office data, Heritage Foundation Budget Analyst Brian Riedl estimates Katrina relief spending will push fiscal 2006 federal spending to an all-time high: $23,638 per household. And $3,800 will be borrowed.
Americans can't and won't tolerate passing along such enormous debts to our children and grandchildren so member of Congress can brag about "giving" their constituents quarter-billion-dollar bridges to nowhere.
The president's line in the budgetary sand was clear: Congress should rescind wasteful pork-barrel projects and divert funds to the critical task of aiding Gulf Coast communities.
But policymakers should take the next logical step. They must reject any attempts to attach earmarks to any upcoming Katrina-related legislation. Congress also should adopt a moratorium on earmarks that would be attached to the remaining appropriations bills for the next fiscal year, and the bills' total spending must be cut by the amount of the earmarks. No one can claim to be a responsible lawmaker -- and certainly not a conservative -- who responds to disaster by earmarking taxpayer funds for pet pork projects.
And the problem goes deeper. Given current spending patterns and the rapidly growing federal entitlement obligations, we're about to witness a gargantuan growth of federal government.
To meet our existing entitlement promises without exploding deficits, Congress would have to raise federal taxes more than 50 percent over the next 25 years. Total taxation would then eat up more than a third of gross domestic product, severely hampering our nation's economic prosperity. Thus Congress must ask itself not only "What low-priority federal programs can we cut?" but also "Can we afford to expand entitlements when we cannot even pay for what is already on the books?" That's why Congress must, at the very least, delay the Medicare prescription drug benefit for a year. This one step would save U.S. taxpayers nearly $33 billion next year alone.
These two simple proposals -- ending pork and delaying the drug benefit -- are two small yet important steps toward responsible government. They would prove representatives are serious about the urgent concerns of Americans.
Congress and the administration say they want to do the right thing. Now lawmakers can put their money where their mouths are. The House leadership is set to consider if it should change its own budget resolution and trim other spending to pay for hurricane relief.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert wants the resolution to pare entitlement spending at least $50 billion over the next five years, up from the previous $35 billion target. That may sound like a lot. But $50 billion is one-third of 1 percent of $14 trillion Congress will spend in the next five years.
The Illinois Republican also wants to cut discretionary spending across the board. House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle, Iowa Republican, has proposed a 2 percent cut in discretionary spending -- which would save another $17 billion.
Well and good. But Congress can and must do even better. To accommodate Katrina spending and get Congress back on the road to fiscal sanity, Hastert & Co. should come up with a resolution that provides $70 billion in spending offsets.
In doing so, House leaders could yoke the Gulf Coast renaissance to a renaissance of responsibility on Capitol Hill.
Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.