August 1, 2008

August 1, 2008 | Commentary on

Congressional self-control: An oxymoron

"Betcha can't eat just one."

Lay's sells billions of potato chips with that slogan each year. The U.S. government operates on the same principle, selling us record-high deficits by appealing to our appetites for federal interventions and handouts.

The latest news says the deficit will reach half a trillion dollars next year. How has this happened?

Once we try a federal program to address a problem, we end up trying several more aimed at the same problem, plus dozens of others aimed at "equally worthy" causes.

Once Congress makes a single spending earmark to finance a worthwhile project, other members insist on cramming their worthless projects into the same bill.

Once a special interest is placated with money or language placed in legislation, every other special interest demands something for themselves.

All this leads to the alternate slogan for those who populate Congress: "What's in it for me?" It's often followed by, "I want some more."

Snack makers' slogans and marketing may tempt consumers to stretch their waistlines, but it's consumers who decide whether or not to yield to that ever-present temptation. Likewise, spending blame can be heaped upon the Congress for yielding to the temptations of special interests. But blame may also be attached to voters who demand more from government but less from themselves and who reward politicians who feed that demand.

The ever-growing bulge in the federal deficit puts bulging bellies to shame. Offer a tempting goodie to the voters and they'll never be able to stop eating them.

Congress can't control itself. The latest news about out-of-control spending made headlines across America, but was disregarded by most of Washington.

The official annual deficit is expected to reach $389 billion this year and $482 billion next year, within a budget of about $2.5 trillion. Last year's deficit was $162 billion. But the current Congress has burned out the fiscal brakes and stuck its foot on the spending accelerator.

The National Taxpayers Union calculated that if we enacted every bill introduced in the House and Senate last year, federal spending would increase by $2.8 trillion annually - about $24,500 per household.

But even if we look only at what Congress has actually passed this year, the new spending for now and future years is scary. It includes:

  • $168 billion to "stimulate" the economy by sending out checks (to be repaid by the next generation).

  • A record $25 billion farm bill that expands federal subsidies despite record-high food prices and farm income. (The bill also enlarged the Food Stamp program.)

  • A mortgage industry bailout bill that writes blank checks from the Treasury, with some estimates predicting it could ultimately cost taxpayers anywhere from $100 billion to $1 trillion.

  • Overriding a Bush veto that would have saved billions by Medicare cost containment.

  • An extra $16 billion for money-losing Amtrak.

  • $8 billion for extra highway spending - needed because Congress had depleted the highway trust fund to subsidize mass transit riders.

  • $67 billion in extra domestic spending that Congress demanded in exchange for funding our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That's only 2008 so far, with five months to go. Pretty soon, all those extra billions will add up to real money.

Still in the works for this year are the "regular" spending bills, with mega-billion increases, plus a "Second Stimulus" projected to be perhaps $100 billion, and 50 new federal education programs in an education bill expected to add new spending of $169 billion.

And what's on the horizon? Presidential candidate Barack Obama assembled 40 economic advisers this week who all told him what he wanted to hear: We need government to spend more money.

Has self-control gone out of style? Yet cutting back is possible.

In 2005, The Heritage Foundation compiled a list of duplicative and overlapping federal programs. Among them: 342 economic development programs; 130 programs serving the disabled; 130 programs for at-risk youth; 90 early childhood development programs; 75 programs funding international education, cultural and training exchange activities; 72 federal programs dedicated to assuring safe water; 50 homeless assistance programs; 40 separate employment and training programs; 28 rural development programs; 23 agencies providing aid to the former Soviet republics. That was in 2005. The list is bigger now.

Washington needs a better motto than, "Betcha can't eat just one." But for now, it just keeps going and going and going.

We deserve a break today. 

 A Congress that controlled spending? That would be priceless.

Ernest Istook is recovering from serving 14 years in Congress and is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ernest Istook Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First appeared in the World Net Daily