October 6, 2005 | WebMemo on Federal Budget
The nation is at a crucial crossroads for conservative governance. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita will test whether Congress and the President can respond to such disasters responsibly by prioritizing the federal government's obligations. The President is to be commended for his call to cut other spending in order to pay for the hurricanes. He should stay the course and work with Congress to achieve this goal. Policymakers who are serious about controlling spending must now take two critical steps:
All Americans are committed to encouraging a renaissance in the Gulf Coast regions affected by the hurricanes. While the most innovative and effective ideas for bringing prosperity to the Gulf Coast region will come from the private sector, the federal government will also play a role in this process. The question is: Will Congress and the President act responsibly when it comes to paying for the federal response?
Congress Must Reject Earmarks
"Earmark" is the innocuous name given to a piece of pork-barrel spending. One reason federal spending has grown is that Members of Congress use earmarks to fund specific projects, businesses, and local governments, and this habit has grown out of control in recent years.
Congress should redirect earmarked spending in the recent highway bill to pay for rebuilding infrastructure in the Gulf Coast. These 6,000-plus earmarks, costing $25 billion, epitomize much of what is objectionable about runaway federal spending. These projects usually have nothing to do with improving national transportation infrastructure, blanket the nation across almost all congressional districts, and include projects like pedestrian, bike, and horse trails, trolley cars, parking garages, and an infamous $220 million bridge that will serve a 50-person village in Alaska.
The highway bill give-back proposal has resonated throughout the country. Americans recognize that it is irresponsible for Members of Congress to spend money on pet projects when those funds could be better spent on infrastructure in the Gulf Coast. In response to Katrina, citizens donated their money and their time in record numbers and made great sacrifices to do so. Members of Congress should to do the same. Any Member who is serious about controlling spending must be willing to redirect these funds to this major national priority.
Further, Congress must reject attempts to attach earmarks to hurricane-related legislation and must also adopt a moratorium on earmarks in all appropriations bills that remain to be considered this year. The total level of spending in those bills must then be reduced accordingly. Last year, earmarks in appropriations bills alone cost $27 billion and included therapeutic horseback riding, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and mariachi music. Lawmakers who continue to insist on earmarking taxpayer funds to pet pork projects in the aftermath of these disasters are not responsible. No lawmakers can call themselves fiscally responsible if they respond to disaster by earmarking taxpayer funds for such projects.
This is a clear line in the sand: Members of Congress should rescind the pork-barrel projects already passed in the recent transportation bill, reject all future earmarks in appropriation bills, and redirect the savings to pay for hurricane relief and rebuilding.
Presidential Leadership on Spending
The President must bring leadership to spending control. He has rightly called on Congress to find spending offsets to pay for the government's commitment. He referred Congress to spending cuts in his last budget proposal, including reductions for mandatory spending and inefficient programs, and vowed to work closely with Congress to find additional offsets. The Administration has met with Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) and the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC), which has offered up an extensive menu of offset options for Congress to consider. The President should urge Congress to give serious consideration to all of these recommendations.
However, the President has yet to veto a single bill or submit a single request for Congress to rescind spending. He must give an iron-clad promise that he will veto any bill with earmarks that reaches his desk, whatever the bill's subject. The President cannot compromise on this point if his call for a fiscally disciplined response to Katrina and Rita is to be taken seriously.
Bring Entitlement Spending Under Control
Forward-looking Americans from across the political spectrum know that we will soon witness an explosion in the size of the federal government as a result of rapidly growing federal entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
Unless Congress takes steps now to reform entitlement programs, it will have to hike taxes by more than one-third in just a decade to meet these programs' promises. Sharp tax hikes will continue well beyond then just to keep pace with this spending. The effect on our nation's economic growth and prosperity will be severe. European-level taxes will lead to European-style stagnation and European-style double-digit unemployment.
Congress must delay implementation of the Medicare prescription drug benefit for one year, at the very least, in order to determine how to pay for it without raising taxes or if it should be substantially revised. A year's delay would save nearly $33 billion. If lawmakers are sincere about bringing spending under control, they must restrain themselves from adding another $8 trillion to the nation's already unaffordable long-term debt. There can be no free pass on expanding the size and scope of government.
These two lines in the sand-eliminating all earmarks and delaying implementation of the Medicare prescription drug benefit-are critical steps toward fiscally responsible government. They will serve as a test of whether the nation's elected officials are actually serious about controlling federal spending. In the months ahead, there will be an ongoing debate about Congress's response to Katrina, and Americans will hold Members of Congress to this standard.
 Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D., "The Katrina Relief Effort: Congress Should Redirect Highway Earmark Funding to a Higher Purpose," Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 832, September 2, 2005, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/SmartGrowth/wm832a.cfm.