June 20, 2006

June 20, 2006 | Commentary on Federal Budget

Four simple steps to fix Washington's spending habits

Over the past few years, Americans have watched Washington ratchet up spending with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for their tax dollars.

Spending has grown by 33 percent since 2001 alone. Special-interest earmarks -- pork-barrel spending such as the $700 million "railroad to nowhere" -- have exploded. This project would relocate a high-traffic, perfectly functioning rail line in Mississippi in order to make way for a Vegas-style gaming district.

While these projects may represent only about 1 percent of the federal budget, they symbolize the corruption that has developed around the federal budget. In fact, the whole process requires fixes. But recently, there are a few small things to cheer about.

Congress took the "railroad to nowhere" out of the supplemental spending bill to pay for Iraq and continuing hurricane relief. Even better, lawmakers stripped out $14 billion in special-interest spending added by the Senate above the president's emergency request.

This is remarkable, because standard operating procedure for this kind of "must-pass" legislation is to pile on even more pork. Congress stood firm against unreasonable salary demands from the air traffic controllers' union and set the stage for reforming Amtrak, which has been a growing drain on taxpayers for decades.

To build on this momentum and fix the budget process, four small but important reforms are floating around the halls of Congress today that would give lawmakers some meaningful tools to tame spending.

First, lawmakers should start by bringing in some outside help. Congress should create a commission, similar to the successful BRAC model that closed obsolete military bases, to package all outdated, wasteful and unnecessary programs into one termination bill that would receive expedited floor consideration.

Every single federal program has a constituency that exists to protect and increase its funding. What's more, nearly every federal program is some member's pet project that he or she will fight hard to protect. That makes it nearly impossible to eliminate obsolete or duplicative federal programs one at a time. However, bundling these programs into one bill that must be voted on without change would separate protecting parochial interests from achieving greater good.

Second, lawmakers should reform the process of earmarking by requiring full disclosure of all parties involved in any earmarks, from spouses to children to live-in partners. They also should require that all earmarks be subject to vote by being included in legislation. Most pork projects now are simply included in unofficial reports that are not binding -- or voted on.

Last year, more than 10,000 pork projects were handed out at a cost of $29 billion. In some congressional offices, earmarking federal spending for the home district is virtually a full-time job. But allowing lawmakers to select exactly who receives government grants invites corruption. It's no coincidence that the same lawmakers who voted to double the number of pork projects since 2000 also enacted the most expensive education, farm, highway and energy bills ever.

Third, Congress should ensure that all federal grants are a matter of public record.

Every year, federal agencies distribute thousands of federal grants with little public knowledge or accountability. Taxpayers have a right to know how the federal government distributes grants, particularly to ideological and politically activist organizations. After all, it's our money. Plus, it would make federal agencies and grant recipients more accountable. Congress should enact legislation creating a searchable public database of all government grant and contract recipients.

Finally, Congress could give the president a line-item veto.

The president already has a power called rescission. He can send legislation to Congress to cancel existing budget authority that has not yet been spent. Currently, however, Congress can kill a rescission request by voting it down or simply ignoring it.

A line-item veto could improve on the existing rescission authority in several ways by:

  • Allowing the president to "veto" entitlement changes and special tax breaks along with discretionary appropriations.
  •  Forcing Congress to act on "veto" packages within 10 days.
  •  Mandating that Congress hold up-or-down votes that couldn't be amended on the "veto" package bills.
  •  Requiring only a simple majority to pass a "veto" package bill.

Lawmakers have failed in recent years to exercise restraint in spending our money. But the recent, though small, spending victories are promising. The House and Senate have pledged to reform the budget process, and these four simple steps would be a good start to build on this momentum.

Alison Acosta Fraser is director of the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

About the Author

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

Related Issues: Federal Budget

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