June 17, 2006 | Commentary on Federal Budget
It's a sign of difficult times when a $94.5 billion
supplemental bill is considered a victory for taxpayers. But with
spending up 45 percent since 2001, you celebrate whatever small
victories may come.
With increasing momentum, a coalition of lawmakers and grassroots organizations blocked nearly all of the $16 billion in additional spending that the Senate Appropriations Committee had added to President Bush's $92 billion Iraq and Gulf Coast supplemental bill.
The most egregious provision was the $700 million "railroad to nowhere" proposal to move a working private rail line a few miles north of its current Mississippi location, reportedly to make room for a Las Vegas-style "centralized gaming district."
There was also a $4 billion farm-subsidy bailout (even as net farm incomes reach record levels), $594 million for new highway projects as far away as Hawaii, $1.1 billion in fisheries subsidies, $200 million for transit, and $20 million for AmeriCorps, to name just a few examples.
What typically happens next is all-too-familiar: Lobbyists swarm, the Senate keeps all of its new spending, the House adds an equal increase for itself, President Bush signs the bill, and exasperated taxpayers wonder what happened to the spirit of the 1994 revolution.
But something happened on the way to this spending spree: The House-Senate conference committee actually cut $14 billion from this appropriations bill.
Immediately following the Senate's overwhelmingly passage of the bloated $109 billion legislation, the White House released its toughest spending veto threat yet, insisting that "if the President is ultimately presented a bill that provides more than $92.2 billion, exclusive of funding for the resident's plan to address pandemic influenza, he will veto the bill" (this translated to $94.5 billion after including pandemic flu). The next day, 35 senators signed a letter pledging to uphold such a veto. They were joined in the House by Majority Leader John Boehner (R., Ohio) and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R., Ill.), who declared the bill "dead on arrival."
By the time the conference committee was completed, $14 billion of the additional $16 billion had been stripped. The railroad to nowhere and transit assistance were both gone, the farm bailout was scaled down to $500 million and limited to disaster-affected farmers, fisheries subsidies whittled to $118 million, AmeriCorps' subsidy halved, and all highway projects fully offset. All told, the final bill complied with the President's $94.5 billion line in the sand.
This surprising turn of events resulted from three related developments:
First, Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) focused public attention on the bill's waste by tying up the Senate floor for two days with more than a dozen amendments to strike the most wasteful portions of the added funds. Rather than focus on the more mundane expenditures, Coburn highlighted the ridiculous "railroad to nowhere" and (as with last year's bridge to nowhere) created an unmistakable symbol of Congress' misplaced priorities. Only one of Coburn's amendments passed, but he had made his point.
Second, grassroots taxpayer groups mobilized. Conservative frustration over expanding government has been well-documented, yet few bills sparked as much anger as this brazen attempt to stuff billions of dollars in pork to a bill designed to fund the troops. Every time senators created a new justification for the railroad to nowhere, bloggers immediately shot it down.
Third, and perhaps most surprisingly, newspaper editorial boards repeatedly blasted the additional $16 billion. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and dozens of smaller newspapers from coast to coast reflected the taxpayers' contempt for this frivolous spending. While the railroad to nowhere received most of the ink, farm subsidies, the Northrup Grumman bailout, and millions for "seafood promotion strategies" made easy targets not only for spending-weary conservative newspapers, but also for liberal papers appalled at the tilting of these expenditures to large corporations.
Together, these three developments made the political landscape safe for spending restraint. The Senate appropriators' audacious attempt to extort the extra $16 billion rested on the assumption that the president and Congress could not, regardless of its contents, oppose a wartime-spending bill five months before an election. By separating the necessary defense portion of the bill from the frivolous waste, critics tapped into the same voter anger that has made banning pork projects the voters' top domestic priority for Congress.
The backlash apparently caught the senators off-guard. Given the president's empty veto record, Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott (R., Miss.) had dismissively responded, "I don't take [the veto threat] that seriously." This challenge seemed to embolden the White House, which grew even more adamant with its veto threat. When Senate staffers floated the idea of paying for their additions with an across-the-board cut - which would have taken $13 billion from the troops - the president added that his veto threat also applied to any wasteful spending in the bill, even if it still met his overall funding limit. His victory over this latest bout of wasteful spending should add credibility to what - we can hope - are many more spending veto threats.
To be sure, the bill remains flawed. The original $20 billion for Gulf Coast reconstruction is still not offset, some pork projects survived, and the $94.5 billion tab is still too high. These provisions justified the no votes cast by many House conservatives. However, we should not ignore the almost unheard-of killing of nearly $16 billion in additional spending that had been supported by the most powerful senators.
Much larger reforms are necessary: Preventing a larger spending increase is not the same as actually reducing spending. Reforms of entitlements, discretionary spending levels, the budget process, and pork must be undertaken to avert European-size tax increases. After five years of budget disappointments, conservatives should enjoy - and work to build on - this rare victory on spending.
Brian Riedl is Grover M. Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the National Review Online