Even though the federal fiscal year ended on September 30, Congress hadn’t then — and still hasn’t — passed the vast majority of the federal agencies’ budget bills. Now, three weeks away from the Christmas Recess, Congress is threatening to pass an omnibus budget bill which has at least $22 billion in excess spending above the president’s budget request.
The president has threatened to veto the budget because of the excess and because the Democrats are — for more than the 41st time — planning to put language in the bill to force withdrawal from Iraq. They are holding Pentagon funding hostage to their artificial budget crisis.
On Tuesday, HUMAN EVENTS News Producer Ericka Andersen interviewed Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) who is leading a fight against porkbarrel spending in the new omnibus federal budget bill. They talked about how Congress worked itself into this mess and how DeMint thinks troops can be funded without allowing the legislation to be flooded with porkbarrel earmarks. Here’s a transcript of the interview:
EA: How did we get to this budget mess at the end of the year?
DeMint: It’s not unusual to be in a mess at the end of the year. I thought the Republicans didn’t do well when they didn’t get all over their bills done by the October date. The 8-9 years I’ve been in Congress, it’s never been at this point, this late, where you have 11 bills that haven’t even been debated on the Senate floor. I think part of the problem is, when the Democrats took over, they had kind of a “payback agenda,” the folks who supported getting them in.
We spent a lot of the year doing resolutions about Iraq…dozens of resolutions, that’s taken a whole lot of floor time. We’ve done a lot of payback for union losses, trying to get rid of secret ballot protection. And almost everything we’ve done whether its consumer product safety or whatever, it seems that we are trying to create new loopholes for trial lawyers.
As you look at it even objectively, and I know I’m biased, but the whole year we’ve spent on non-priorities instead of focusing on what the Democrats promised to do. First they said they were going to get rid of earmarks…and if they get their way with this Omnibus [budget bill], we’ll be back up in the tens of thousands of earmarks again.
They said they’d make disclosure more of a priority but every time I’ve put something forward they’ve tried to create loopholes. But we’ve done enough that people are on to them and I think there’s a lot of national news now about the different earmarks so that has been a step forward. But mostly I think that when the Democrats focus on trying to discredit the President, declare the war lost and try to prove it by reducing funding, they really took their eye off the ball on getting anything substantive done. And so here we are at the end of year, they want to do a farm bill but can’t agree on basic stuff, an energy bill …won’t agree on reauthorizing the children’s health bill because they want a massive increase and then they want to package all the spending bills together without debate and just send them through.
So it is a mess. You started that off correctly and it’s never, at least in my time up here, been quite this bad. And the core of all of the problems, and we’ve been talking about all year, is this earmarking. We’ve got bills now for earmarks for almost every senator. And so they want to vote for anything that will get those earmarks through even if it’s way over budget. And it’s just such a clear picture of why we’ve got a problem here. Instead of focusing on the nation’s priorities, we’re focused on special interests, parochial needs and because of this whole out of control earmarking. Our hope is to get through the year with troop funding and continuing spending at last year’s level and not even do a huge omnibus with all these earmarks in.
EA: The President has said he will veto the bill. Are there any prospects to somehow use the bill rather than sustain the veto or do you definitely want to sustain the veto?
DeMint: I think if the President vetoes it, the Republicans have to sustain it. I think the House is solid in their support of some fiscal sanity and in redefining the Republican Party is standing for some fiscal discipline and the Senate I think is coming around to the point of view but we’re not quite there yet.
I think we’ll see a fair amount of unity among Republicans if the Democrats try to force through their current spending level if the President vetoes it.
EA: If he does veto we’ll end up with a continuing resolution…
DeMint: Or some threat of a government shut down. Whether or not the Democrats want to play that game, we’re not sure yetI Some of them think they will win that battle in the media because the media’s gonna automatically blame Republicans. So I’m not sure what they’ll do on that but I kinda doubt they’ll play that card.
EA: If it did come to the CR, how would we get that through as clean as possible?
Demint: Whether it’s clean or not, that’s the big question. Gotta be careful what we hope for here. It can have anything attached to it from the SCHIP expansion…it could have a lot of different things. We’ve got to be careful. I think in order to get the CR, they’re going to have to do it by unanimous consent. So if they put something like that on there, they know they are not going to get unanimous consent on the Senate side. So hopefully people will come to their senses and want to go home for Christmas. Just do a clean CR and come back and talk about it next year.
EA: Democrats have said they will cut the excess spending in the bill from $22 billion to $11 billion. That probably doesn’t do anything to change your mind but have you heard anything from the President on this?
DeMint: The President has publicly said no. And my sense, from talking to key White House staff is, that he’s going to stick to that. He’s not going to let them use the troops as hostage to break the budget on this. So I think the Presidents going to stick pretty close to his number. The question is whether o not Congress will sustain. I feel like the House is pretty solid, the Republicans seem to be holding together very well and hopefully the Senate come to the same conclusion.
EA: Who do you have lining up with you to get a clean bill passed?
DeMint: We’re kind of working the party with some conversations with key people on the steering committee are supportive of the idea and we’ll have a steering lunch tomorrow. We’ll have a chance to lay out our case to just about all the Republicans so we’ll probably get some idea this week how many are willing to stand up and how many are willing to fold up their tent and go home for Christmas.
EA: Is your sense that there are plenty of people who will sustain the veto?
DeMint: I think it depends really on what the bill is that goes through. If it gets pretty close to the President’s numbers and has some of things in there that key people want — like the border fencing or the uptick for the Veterans — then it becomes difficult for the President to veto it and for us to sustain it. So I think the closer the Democrats get to the President’s number, the more difficult it’s going be for us to sustain a veto if it happens. So it’s going to depend on the bill. But the way things are today, I think Republicans would sustain the President’s veto over a Democratic omnibus.
Demint: [On a graph marking earmark numbers for the past several years] This is part of what really what drives this end of the year crisis. This is a chart of a number of earmarks over the last several years and you see why Republicans lost the majority. We had been able to start to bring it down. And this year, we were able to get a year long, continuing resolution and there were only a couple of thousand earmarks that had passed before the defense bill…and you can see the longer line there at the end, if the omnibus goes through with the current Democrat stuff in there, we’re going to go way back up over 10,000. But if we get another CR at this point, we’ll continue to drive the number down a little bit.
The challenge is, when there are that many earmarks in a bill, that means that every Senator has some interest in it passing because they’ve probably already done a press release that they’ve gotten this money for this museum or this research project or whatever. So it becomes hard for them to vote against the bill.
EA: If a CR happens, aren’t the Democrats going to convey to the American people that Republicans are trying to suspend funding for the troops by not voting for the bill?
DeMint: The Democrats are going to say we were obstructive. I don’t think they will try to get into a lot of detail. Actually, for Republicans, if we are able to leave here saying we forced a CR and we saved in this case the budget office has estimated $31 billion dollars a year for 10 years, which is well over $300 billion we saved just by not going through with the omnibus and doing a CR that’s inflation adjusted. It’s pretty big money.
The key thing for us as Republicans to understand is that what happens in the next few weeks here is going to define us as a party for the ’08 elections. And not so much of what we do next year because that’s gonna be lost in the campaign clutter. But how we end this year is going to give us some credibility hopefully that we are the party of fiscal discipline. And that having the Democrats in charge has not resulted in any positive direction here. So it’s really important that we finish this year strong…stand up and not allow this messy omnibus what defines us.
EA: The fight against earmarks and pork has been going on for several years now and you and others like Senator Coburn have been fighting the fight but Republicans are still struggling. Do you see it getting better and what else can we do to make it better?
Demint: Oh it’s getting a lot better. We’re not necessarily winning it all but we’ve made it very difficult for people to go out and defend the thousands of earmarks in the bills. So it’s become a very sensitive thing and there’s some of the guys are still fighting for the status quo but its fewer and fewer. More people are saying we need to something even if they are not willing to say let’s stop the process. And there’s increasing pressure from the outside. Most Americans now know what an earmark is or at least that it means wasteful spending.
So that’s the progress of a couple years of pointing out whether it’s the Woodstock museum or the Bridge to Nowhere. The bridge to nowhere, ironically, was something we exposed — as Republicans — a Republican earmark. It probably had a lot to do with bringing down the Republican majority for us to make a big deal out of it. But it was, I think a turning point for us because if you look at the graph, you see where we were going until we hit the Bridge to Nowhere in ’06 — there was no ceiling on it. Because the Democrats always can agree on more earmarks. The only constraining factor was the Republicans and once they got in the game, it just blew out of control. So now I think if we can end up this year and say for two years in a row we’ve kept the earmarks to a minimum and funded the government at last year’s level plus inflation. That’s at least something to say on the fiscal side. I mean, if we kind of really pull together…I’m not sure all the Republicans are there yet.