Taxes & Spending

Budget Gridlock Doesn’t Hurt Republicans

Representatives and senators have long avowed they can’t win re-election without larding up the appropriations bills with pet projects and higher spending. Last month’s incumbent-friendly election should lay such claims to rest once and for all.

Only two of the 13 annual appropriations bills were approved before Election Day. Yet incumbents had a re-election rate of 98% in the House and more than 90% in the Senate. There is nothing to fear from slowing down government spending, and indeed, it may prosper incumbents, especially Republicans, to do more of it.

Thanks to the intransigence of budget hawks at the White House and in Congress, there was no 11th-hour omnibus bill including large spending increases and pork. In fact, by not passing the Senate Democrats’ budget, which added $13 billion more to baseline spending than the House, the nation saved $180 billion over 10 years, adjusted for inflation. That alone is the size of this year’s bloated farm bill.

Add to that the 10-year savings from not passing the Democrats’ drought relief/farm state bribe proposal, and you get another $70 billion. Because President Bush did not yield to the veterans’ lobby on the issue of concurrent receipts, which keeps vets from receiving both pension and disability checks from Uncle Sam, taxpayers saved $58 billion over 10 years. By holding firm against the healthcare lobby’s call for big Medicare givebacks, budget disciplinarians may have saved taxpayers at least $50 billion over 10 years, though that issue remains unsettled.

Further savings of close to $60 billion over 10 years came from President Bush’s late-summer pocket veto of $5.1 billion of the "emergency" homeland security spending that Congress forced on him.

In other words, by fighting the big spenders to a standstill, the White House and key congressional Republicans saved at least $418 billion over the next 10 years, adjusted for inflation.

Another positive facet of this year’s session of Congress was the absence of the "get out of town tax." From 1996 to 2002, last-minute add-ons to help incumbent re-elections cost an average of $29 billion over the annual budget resolution. This year, considering the high stakes and close races, that amount would likely have been even substantially higher than average.

Last but not least, incumbents were re-elected without thousands of new unauthorized, unrequested budget earmarks, a.k.a. pork. Since taking Congress in 1994, Republicans have substantially increased pork-barrel projects, both in cost and number. For fiscal 1994, under a Democrat-controlled Congress, the total of 1,318 pork projects cost taxpayers $7.7 billion.

In the last three years, the mostly Republican-led appropriators have added 4,326, 6,333, and 8,341 such projects, costing $17.7 billion, $18.5 billion, and $20.1 billion respectively. To be fair, pork has always been a bipartisan affair, and is likely to remain so in the new Congress. But now there is clear evidence that the steady upward trend in pork spending is unnecessary for Republican success.

In fact, it may hamper GOP efforts. Republican-base voters have been depressed in past election cycles by watching their congressional leaders cave in, again and again, to huge omnibus appropriations and pork bonanzas just before Election Day. This year, with fiscal discipline taking hold in Washington, Republicans turned out in sufficient numbers to take back the Senate and expand their majority in the House. It turns out that Republicans can win big when they stick to their fiscal guns.

Come January, when the new Congress convenes and moves forward on the 11 remaining appropriations, leaders in both houses should block their colleagues from larding up the bills with waste and pork. There is no excuse, in a time of war, deficits, and a slow economy, not to put Congress on a pork-free diet. The reward for sticking to such a regimen could be enduring Republican control of Congress.