June 27, 2007

June 27, 2007 | Commentary on Political Thought

Warring against wasteful spending

Even the longest journey, it's said, begins with a single step. Recently in the House of Representatives, the minority party took such a step, one that may allow our country to begin the long journey back to responsible government.

Let's recall the lesson of 2006. After more than a decade in power, the Republican majority had lost touch with its conservative roots. Spending soared. In fact, it has increased more than one third since 2001 alone.

At the same time, lawmakers became more directly involved in how that money was spent. They scattered thousands of "earmarks" throughout spending bills - funding for specific roads, swimming pools and civic centers. Anything, really. The point was to show voters their lawmakers could "bring home the pork."

Eventually the absurdity of earmarks made headlines. Some lawmakers wanted to fund a "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska. Others wanted a "railroad to nowhere" in Mississippi. The supposedly conservative party was spending money like a bunch of liberals, so when Democrats promised to clean up Washington, voters were willing to give them a try.

But when it came to earmarks, the new majority seemed determined not only to repeat the mistakes of the recent past, but to go even further.

David Obey, chair of the Appropriations Committee, announced that this year, earmarks wouldn't be identified in the spending bills considered by the House. Instead, he would drop them in after the bills passed, meaning lawmakers would never have a chance to consider each earmark individually. To vote against an earmark, a lawmaker would need to vote against an entire bill, a much more difficult thing to explain to constituents.

And here's where the minority party took a valiant stand. Republicans insisted earmarks be included in the original spending bills, and that the lawmaker who requested the earmark be identified. After some hemming and hawing, the House agreed to abide by this sensible policy.

Of course, this is nothing more than a procedural victory. Republicans haven't blocked any spending measures yet. But they have succeeded in ensuring that all earmarks will be transparent. That alone is a hopeful sign.

Now conservatives need to take the next step and start reining in wasteful spending. That means going after earmarks, but also requiring actual cuts in spending bills. And there's plenty of fat in the House bills to target.

The already passed Homeland Security bill includes a 14 percent increase in spending, twice the Bush administration request. A military construction and veterans affairs bill has a 30 percent spending increase. Expect those trends to be repeated in each of the 12 separate spending bills the House must pass. Fortunately, President Bush has promised to veto nine of those bills and almost 150 House Republicans have vowed to uphold those vetoes.

These are positive steps, because they mean House lawmakers will get a second chance to consider these bloated spending bills. Conservatives must make it a point to identify wasteful spending and cut it out of the bills before they're voted on again. They'll have an opportunity to save taxpayers billions of dollars and to reverse the trend toward bigger spending and bigger government. In short, they can take steps toward becoming, well, conservative once again.

The recent skirmish portends a renewed battle over earmarks and spending. And while this recent victory did not reduce spending, it opens a door that conservatives must be ready to step through. When they do, expect to hear their constituents cheering from coast-to-coast.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

First appeared in the Washington Times