April 18, 2006

April 18, 2006 | Commentary on Taxes

Stop the Senate's Supplemental Spending Spree

Congress has jacked up federal spending by 45 percent in just five years. Agriculture, education, Medicare, energy and highway bills have all registered scandalously high hikes.

Apparently, it's not enough. Congress is on the verge of adding another chapter to its shameful record of fiscal imprudence.

The vehicle this time is the supplemental spending bill needed to finance operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Gulf Coast hurricane recovery. The House passed a $92 billion measure requested by President Bush. But the Senate Appropriations Committee hijacked that measure and loaded it up with $14 billion in new spending, most of it unrelated to security or recovery issues, while shortchanging funds requested for the war.
Where is the $14 billion going?

For starters, the bill would give Mississippi $700 million to re-route a rail line a few miles northward. Why? The Senate report claims it's to fix damage from Hurricane Katrina. But the line has already been repaired, at a cost of $300 million, and the trains are running just fine.

The real reason to shift the tracks is purportedly to make way for construction of a "centralized gaming district" of private, Vegas-style casinos. Even though a state commission recently declared that this long-standing proposal "is no longer seen as practical," Mississippi Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran have taken advantage of taxpayers' post-Katrina generosity to lard on $700 million for this "railroad to nowhere."

There's plenty more.

Consider farm subsidies. Congress has tripled them over the past decade. Net farm income last year was the second highest ever. Still not enough for the senators. The committee tacked on $4 billion in farm subsidies, much of it not even targeted to the Gulf Coast. This will push total farm subsidies over $30 billion this year.

While the ink has barely dried on the mammoth $286 billion highway bill, Senators added $594 million in additional highway spending completely unrelated to Katrina relief. In fact, the only project specifically mentioned -- the Kuhio Highway in Kauai, Hawaii -- is safely located 4,085 miles from Katrina's destructive path. If the $286 billion authorized for highways is not enough for the Senate's taste, perhaps they can reprogram some of the 6,371 pork projects currently tying up $25 billion in highway spending.

It could get worse. Spending-crazed senators are poised to tack on another $10 billion when the bloated committee bill comes to the floor.

Budgets are supposed to be about setting priorities and making trade-offs. Senate spenders have brazenly chosen parochial special interests over national security. Rather than fully fund our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, they prefer to turn guns into pork.

This is no time for a senatorial spending spree. Federal spending already stands at a post-war high of $23,760 per household. The new Medicare prescription drug benefit is projected to cost more than $1 trillion over the next 10 years, and the first baby boomers are less than two years from collecting their first Medicare and Social Security benefits.

The unfunded obligations from these programs and other federal liabilities already total $375,000 for every full-time worker in America. Within a decade, merely balancing the budget will require a tax increase of $7,000 per household, unless Congress starts making tough choices soon.

The Senate's actions show an arrogant disregard for the huge fiscal burden they have already placed on American taxpayers and their children. Larding up a wartime emergency bill with pork projects, farm bailouts, and even a $700 million "railroad to nowhere" is an indefensible abdication of the Senate's responsibility.

Perhaps, when senators return to Washington from spring break, they will also return to the responsible supplemental spending bill passed by the House. But, given the hubris and greed exemplified in the Senate committee's bill, that's doesn't seem a very good bet.

That would leave taxpayers with only one line of defense: the presidential veto. President Bush has not yet seen fit to use that power.

The president would do well to draw a spending "line-in-the sand" now, before the Senate returns to its deliberations. His should be an ironclad promise to veto any supplemental larded up with extraneous spending. If Congress fails to end the madness itself, the president must step in.

Brian Riedl is Grover M. Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies and Alison Acosta Fraser is Director of the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Brian M. Riedl Grover Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

Alison Acosta Fraser Senior Fellow and Director of Government Finance Programs
Domestic and Economic Policy

First appeared in the National Review Online