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InsiderOnline Blog: April 2006

From the Heritage PolicyBlog

An abbreviated version of a post from today's Heritage Foundation Policy Blog.  It's a round-up of everything that's happened today related to reining in federal spending:

Today's top news: President Bush issued a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP), or veto threat, on the spending bill:

[T]he Senate reported bill substantially exceeds the President’s request, primarily for items that are unrelated to the GWOT and hurricane response. The Administration is seriously concerned with the overall funding level and the numerous unrequested items included in the Senate bill that are unrelated to the war or emergency hurricane relief needs. The final version of the legislation must remain focused on addressing urgent national priorities while maintaining fiscal discipline. Accordingly, if the President is ultimately presented a bill that provides more than $92.2 billion, exclusive of funding for the President’s plan to address pandemic influenza, he will veto the bill.

And it gets better:

The Administration strongly objects to the $700 million included in the Senate bill to relocate the privately owned rail line that runs along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The CSX Corporation, using its own resources, has already repaired damage to the line, and trains are now running. Relocating the tracks would represent a substantial investment beyond pre-disaster conditions and would improperly require U.S. taxpayers to pay for private sector infrastructure.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was quick to praise the President's statement:

Families must live within their means, and so should Washington. I applaud the Administration’s determination to stick to true emergency spending, and will support a veto, if necessary, to keep federal spending under control.

So how does the SAP stack up? Really, it's quite good from a fiscal responsibility standpoint. First, it sets a solid, clear line on the total level of spending--Senators are now fully informed at what level the President will cut them off. Second, it directly hits several of the more egregious and expensive non-emergency projects stuffed into the Senate bill. As we wrote yesterday, what's in the bill matters as much as the total level of spending, and if an item does not address an emergency, it has no business being in an emergency supplemental and outside of the normal budget process, which is subject to caps and other procedural safeguards (weak as those may be). The President's SAP takes both of these points seriously.

With one exception. The Senate bill includes $2.3 billion for avian flu preparedness. This comes on top of $3.8 billion that Congress appropriated just four months ago, funding which will become available in August. From the White House's perspective, this additional appropriation brings the total close to what it had originally requested last year. And so the White House specifically exempts this addition from its SAP's veto threat. From Congress's point of view, this is an easy way to target a few more bucks where it may or may not be urgently needed without being subject to normal budget rules. Politically, then, this makes sense, but it reopens a slipperly slope because this funding doesn't really fit the "emergency" designation as well as the other items in the President supplemental request. A better response from the White House would be to insist that Congress balance this additional funding with offsets elsewhere in the budget.

Bush's action capped a busy day of action on the emergency supplemental.

Early in the day, Americans for Prosperity called on the President to act like a nanny for a misbehaving Congress:

Another season of the hit Fox show Nanny 911 will air this summer – and just in time for President Bush to watch. The President could learn a thing or two from the British Nannies about handling disobedient kids... errr.. umm I mean lawmakers.

What can nannies teach President Bush?

Be Consistent
No means no. Yes means yes.

Actions Have Consequences

Good behavior is rewarded. Bad behavior comes with penalties.

Say What You Mean and Mean It

Think before you speak—or you’ll pay the price.

In the early afternoon, Reps. Jeff Flake and Mike Pence each called on President Bush to veto the bill as it now stands in the Senate.

Pence:

This legislation has become a fruit basket of spending unrelated to our war effort and Katrina, and I say plainly, ‘Mr. President, veto this bill.’

Flake:

I think the Senate is taking the term ‘railroading the taxpayers’ a little too literally with this Railroad to Nowhere.

President Bush has been complicit in Congress’ spending spree for too long. He needs to tell us that he will veto the spending bill if we load it up with pork, and he needs to mean it.

Senators have gotten into the act, too:

“It’s time for fiscal responsibility in this town,” [Sen. John] Ensign said in an interview outside the Hart Senate Office Building yesterday afternoon....

“I do hope we can get [the supplemental spending bill] down to the president’s level,” said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who is both an appropriator and a colleague of Ensign’s on a task force of conservatives called the Fiscal Action Team.

Heritage president Ed Feulner lambastes the Railroad to Nowhere in the Chicago Sun-Times today. Conservatives in Congress are off-track, he writes:

Then again, a free-spending attitude is sadly common in Washington these days. But it didn't used to be, at least among conservatives. Back in 1993, Lott and Cochran helped defeat President Bill Clinton's ill-advised "stimulus" package, a $16.3 billion pork-barrel measure (ironically, almost the same amount that's been wastefully added to the current spending bill). "And where are we going to get the money?" Cochran asked Congress then. "We are going to increase the deficit, which requires the government to borrow more money and to pay more interest. That is not economically healthy, that is economically dangerous."

Back then, Republicans were the minority party in the Senate, and they hung together to fight for principles. These days, too many act as if big government is good government as long as it's "our" government -- a distinctly non-conservative and foolhardy position to take.

Calling the SAP "unusually blunt," today's New York Times reports that President Bush may be getting tough on policing Congress's spending problem:

With many grassroots conservatives up in arms over what they consider excessive growth in government spending under Mr. Bush, and with new scrutiny being applied to the pet projects lawmakers routinely insert into spending bills, the veto threat suggested that Mr. Bush wanted to strike a more assertive posture on the issue. He has issued only 27 veto threats since he took office in 2001 and has not actually vetoed a single measure, even though Congress has passed many bills that exceeded his budget requests.

Mark Tapscott writes: "It's good to see the White House weigh in on the right side." But he also wants to see the President "explicitly vow to veto the bill containing the controversial earmark."

In the Financial Times, the Club for Growth's David Keating says simply of the Senate bill, "This sort of nonsense is going to hurt Republicans."

Leadership may be in agreement on this. Reports Roll Call,

According to a GOP aide, Frist successfully argued that while “The POTUS isn’t on the ballot this year, a lot of our guys are, and marginal issues like this could be particularly important” in an election year during which Republicans are facing a threat to their majority.

(Size of government is a "marginal issue" for Republicans?! Oh, dear.)

NBC's First Call adds a favorable comment to the mix:

NBC's Mike Viqueira reports that when asked yesterday what the GOP plans to do about its poor standing in the polls, House Majority Leader John Boehner replied, "Hold the line on spending."

Mark Steyn, however is still upset about the anti-porkbuster backlash:

"The Republican party," says Arlen Specter, "is now principally moderate, if not liberal" — and he means it as a compliment. "I'll just say this about the so-called porkbusters," chips in Trent Lott. "I'm getting damn tired of hearing from them. They have been nothing but trouble since Katrina."

Well, to be honest, I'm a good half-decade past getting damn tired of hearing from Trent Lott. But the difference is that, as a member of the pork-funding sector of the economy, I pay for him; he doesn't pay for me. . . .

Among the only people less than enthused about the veto threat is Sen. Thad Cochran, who told CQToday, "They're just wrong about it being a road to nowhere." He added, "Those who are criticizing it and making jokes about it are wrong." Of course, Cochran is a driving force behind the increased spending: according to Roll Call, he "recommended $4.6 billion of this increase himself." Sen. Pete Domenici was also dubious, telling CongressDaily, "I don't know if we'll be able to get it down to what [Bush] wants."

In the Washington Times, Heritage's Brian Riedl explains the budget process's role in the current controversy over the supplemental :

It's easy to blame lawmakers for avoiding difficult decisions. But when so many reformers "go native" after arriving in Washington, the larger problem becomes clear: The budget process itself makes it virtually impossible even for well-meaning lawmakers to restrain spending.

Indeed, the federal budget process, created 30 years ago, works to maximize spending. Unlike the 50 state legislatures, the federal government has no enforceable spending limits. This means lawmakers, who often spend days at a time listening to special interests plead for money, can simply add up every spending request and spend that amount without setting priorities and making necessary trade-offs.

Special interests will never cease pressing for more money. Lawmakers need a budget process that helps them say no.

Perhaps having decided to illustrate Riedl's point, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin comes out in favor of earmarking:

As the first Illinois senator on the Senate Appropriations Committee in 35 years, Durbin said: "I have an opportunity to help the state. I do it with earmarks. They're very open. There's nothing secret or sinister about them. People know exactly what they're appropriating money for."

Rep. Ray LaHood agrees on the value of earmarks even as he has to defend himself from ethics complaints arising from them:

LaHood denies any connection between the earmarks he helped secure for local businesses and the fund raising their lobbyists did on his behalf.

"There is absolutely no link," LaHood said. "I help Caterpillar because they're the company in my district. I help Firefly because I think they have a very worthwhile research and development project going on. . . . Some of these hospitals that have benefited, I think we've benefited by the fact that they've been able to get some federal dollars.

"I've helped these organizations because of where they are. They're in Peoria. They're in my district."

NASA director Michael Griffin, whose organization received $568.5 million in earmarks last year, is not a fan:

The Growth of these Congressional directions is eroding NASA's ability to carry out its mission of space exploration and peer-reviewed scientific discovery.

More:

"I feel about these earmarks the same way I always feel about earmarks," Griffin told reporters after the hearing. "Our budget is very limited. We have a strategy approved by Congress, and we can carry out that strategy . . . but every earmark, if it isn't coaligned with that strategy, is a fiscal distraction."

As far as the future, Griffin said he understood that "members have specific interests, and we try to work with members," but $568.5 million was a bit much. What would he like instead? "I would like it to be a lower number," he said. "This is not a hard problem, guys."

Former Delaware Gov. Pete du Pont is puts forward a six-point plan to get spending under control, much of it process-related. He argues that drastic steps are necessary beccause the GOP is losing the national electorate on fiscal issues: Contra recent Sen. Arlen Specter quotes, "It is not Republicans who are liberal, it is the current Republican government that is fiscally liberal and the biggest budget-busting federal spenders since the 1960s." A big part of his fix is cleaning up earmarks:

As a start it should adopt the proposal from Rep. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) that each earmark's sponsor be identified in the text of spending bills, and that a vote be allowed on specific earmark proposals. Congress should also establish term limits for Appropriations Committee members so that the congressional political establishment cannot go on swag-splitting forever.

Posted on 04/26/06 06:19 PM by Larry Scholer

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