Tracking the Big Spenders in Congress

It’s no surprise that folks in Washington, D.C., often live by the old adage, a person is known by the company they keep. Many a political fortune has been made by hanging out with the right crowd—or lost by hanging out with the wrong one.

But can policymakers’ intentions on fiscal matters like balancing the budget be judged by the company they keep? Thanks to the National Taxpayers Union Foundation’s (NTUF’s) BillTally, it’s possible to do just that.  And BillTally does this all without employing scandal-sheet speculation or impossible leaps of logic.

In Capitol Hill-speak, the company most lawmakers keep means the congressional caucuses they join. These Congressional Member Organizations (CMOs) are comprised of representatives who affiliate with like-minded colleagues to promote and coordinate action on particular policies and issues. Of the 326 officially recognized CMOs in the House—ranging from the Algae Energy Caucus to the Coordinated Drywall Caucus—only a few actually pertain to fiscal philosophies. But can these principles be quantified?

That’s where the NTUF’s BillTally system comes in. BillTally provides third-party cost estimates for almost every spending bill that would impact the budget if it were brought to the floor for a vote; there are over a thousand spending bills introduced each year.  By matching up these costs—and the occasional savings—for each bill a representative sponsors or cosponsors, BillTally can determine his or her net spending agenda. NTUF’s exclusive approach is important because authoring and supporting legislation others introduce is probably the closest thing lawmakers have to expressing their own individual preferences.

But BillTally can also indicate group preferences. For example, the average House Republican in the first year of the 111th Congress (2009) sponsored a mix of bills that would reduce budget outlays by $45.3 billion. In fact, this was quite an achievement, as it was the first time in over a decade that Republicans were “net cutters.”

But members of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a caucus “dedicated to a limited and Constitutional role for the federal government,” were largely the force that helped to drive down the tab for the party’s agenda. On average, RSC’s members supported a basket of legislation that would cut much further—by $78.4 billion.

Who were those Republicans promoting bigger budgets? Some of them reside in the Republican Main Street Partnership (RMSP), whose members aim for a “pragmatic, thoughtful, fiscally conservative, and inclusive ‘Governing Majority.’”As BillTally shows, the typical RMSP lawmaker would actually raise federal spending by $40.6 billion. This seems a strange incongruity in a caucus that espouses fiscally conservative principles.

And what can we learn about the company the Democrats keep? The typical member of the deficit-conscious Democratic Blue Dog Coalition (BDC) sponsored a net agenda that would boost spending by $133.0 billion—larger than both the RSC and the RMSP. Still, relative to other Democrats, this could be considered “fiscal discipline;” Democrats who are not members of the BDC supported four times as much spending—$596.4 billion.

Yet, as far as backing bigger budgets goes, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) seems the most likely group to advocate for them. The CPC makes no claim to “fiscal discipline” but instead favors “economic justice.” And it shows: the average CPC member supports a yearly increase in federal spending of $1.08 trillion—one-third more than federal outlays.

It should be noted that any new spending programs not offset by budget cuts elsewhere would have to be financed with new taxes or new debt (which means more interest payments). While the lawmakers in the Progressive Caucus may be the only ones to explicitly advocate for higher taxes, the spending agendas of the RMSP and BDC would make higher taxes more likely as well.

We shouldn’t be shocked that the government’s budget is out of balance when so many lawmakers’ agendas are also out of whack. And as the BillTally data demonstrate, caucuses can either help to change or encourage this inclination. Knowing such facts, perhaps many taxpayers would ask their lawmakers to keep a different kind of company and form a brand-new caucus representing a majority of both parties: the penny-pinchers.