Spendthrift Republicans

The wheels came off the Republican cart on Capitol Hill last week with abandonment of any pretense of loyalty to George W. Bush. But while upbraiding the president, Republican members of Congress were adrift on a sea of unrestrained government spending.

Two Senate incidents during the week pointed to the failure of congressional Republicans to fulfill commitments of fiscal restraint. At their weekly luncheon meeting Tuesday, GOP senators were told there was not enough support for restrictions on spending to pass a budget this year and there would be no attempt. On Wednesday, the party’s Senate leadership beat down opposition to more money from the federal government to pay citizens’ home heating bills.

Republicans obscured these incidents by shoving to make sure Democrats did not get ahead in playing to public hysteria over an Arab-owned company managing U.S. ports. Terrified by the prospect of a midterm election disaster, Republican lawmakers stoked public discontent with the Dubai ports deal rather than contemplate their own failures.

At the closed-door party luncheon Tuesday, rumors that had been circulating for weeks through Capitol corridors became official. Sen. Judd Gregg, the conservative and conscientious Budget Committee chairman, announced that there were not enough Senate Republican votes to pass a budget. Therefore, there would be no budget.

Sen. John Thune, just elected in 2004, questioned that decision. He noted that in unseating then Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota, he mercilessly assailed his opponent’s failure to pass a budget during the two years that Democrats were in the Senate majority. Gregg replied that there simply are not enough Republicans willing to make the hard fiscal decisions.

That Republican mindset was demonstrated on the Senate floor the next day with a 75 to 25 vote to close debate on $1 billion in new spending for home heating. The issue would have slipped by were it not for the hectoring of Sen. Tom Coburn, elected from Oklahoma in 2004 against the wishes of party elders. He told colleagues "there is very limited authorization in the Constitution for us to be paying the heating bills of people in this country."

That argument carried little weight, even with cold-climate conservatives such as Thune, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, and Gregg and John Sununu of New Hampshire. Besides, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist had promised Maine’s two liberal Republican senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, his support for the home heating subsidy in order to keep them with the party on other key votes.

But Coburn makes it a practice to tell unpleasant truths in the Senate just as he did in the House in 1995-2000. He noted that sponsors of the heating oil bill, whose states will get $145 million in additional funds, last year earmarked $770 million in special projects back home. For Maine, the figures were $29.4 million in earmarks and $16.3 million in additional heating subsidies.

Coburn violated senatorial courtesy by reading into the record the Maine earmarks, asking: "Do we help people who need heat with their homes or do we build the Katahdin Iron Works in Maine?" He asked the same question about $246,000 for lowbush blueberry research, $300,000 for the George and Barbara Bush cultural center at the University of Maine and $600,000 for a new city building in Brewer, Maine.

"I am very proud of these projects," a defiant Susan Collins replied on the Senate floor, "and I will stand here and defend every single one of them." However, she added that those projects are "irrelevant to the home oil debate." She and most of her colleagues chose to miss Coburn’s point that choices must be made to impose a limit on spendthrift Republicanism.

On the day the Senate was rejecting Coburn, Rep. Mike Pence (who heads the conservative Republican Study Committee) rose in the House Republican Conference to declare: "You cannot beat a national trend without a national agenda." Recognizing the angry Republican base and the worsening climate for November, Pence has a 10-point program centered around efforts to control spending (including a reformed budget process). Most of his colleagues, however, would rather demagogue about Arabs managing U.S. ports while they continue to spend at will.