WASHINGTON – The president returns to Washington this week to more shark-infested waters than the coast of Florida.
Democrats are sniffing blood, following two reports that the federal surplus is smaller than previous estimates and speculation that the White House might have to tap into the Social Security surplus to pay for its budget this year.
But critics of both parties say lawmakers might look a little closer to home before pointing fingers across the aisle – at the billions in pork-barrel projects and corporate subsidies squeezed into the federal budget each year.
"This past year they’ve spent over $18 million in pork and now they cry that Social Security is suffering?" wonders an amazed David Williams, vice president of policy at the Citizens Against Government Waste. "The incredible shrinking surplus? It’s the spending, stupid."
Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office revised its forecast of this year’s budget surplus from $275 billion to $153 billion surplus. The earlier number prompted President Bush’s 10-year $1.35 trillion tax cut.
The CBO also insisted that if Bush wants to retain this year’s spending plans, he would have to eat up that surplus and tap into $9 billion of the Social Security surplus to do so.
Democrats immediately cried foul, saying Bush’s aggressive tax cut was foolhardy in the face a slowing economy. Bush will have to sacrifice his initiatives — $17 billion more for education and $18 billion for defense — or renege on his promise not to mess with Social Security.
Republicans countered by accusing Democrats of grandstanding in the face of several successful Bush initiatives. They attempted to remind voters that the surplus was their money to begin with, and insist that shifting spending will allow congress to avoid a particularly sticky situation.
But some observers say that the Social Security surplus, or so-called trust fund, is a red herring — that if lawmakers really wanted to avoid spending the surplus they could do so by trimming billions in pork and government giveaways documented each year without fanfare.
For example, the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. sees $87 billion worth of corporate welfare tucked into the current budget, including $298 million in subsidies to the Big Three auto makers to build an energy efficient car.
"Politicians always say they are against this, but there are a lot of powerful companies and appropriations [committee] people who will support these programs," said Chris Edwards, director of fiscal policy for Cato. He points to millions in subsidies that help the likes of Boeing Corp. export planes, or high-tech companies get seed money for their business plans.
"The amount of money that the federal government is spending to subsidize private business activities we think should either be partially eliminated, privatized or somehow gotten rid of," said Edwards.
Citizens Against Government Waste’s Williams said there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to pork – the federal monies lawmakers bring home in order to appease constituents. CAGW estimates the amount of pork will top $20 billion this year.
Some of the projects singled out by CAGW include federal funding for a Dr. Seuss memorial in Massachusetts, peanut competitive research in Georgia and a Vulcan statue in Alabama.
And it’s not only spending that is drawing the ire of some fiscal critics. Republican Sen. Fred Thomson’s office found $1.1 trillion in unsubstantiated accounting statements at the Defense Department, for example, and $44.7 million on "unintended" expenditures at NASA.
Medicare pays out $13 billion annually in improper payments, some have noted, including billions to deceased persons.
"It’s disingenuous. They’re crying poor mouth but their spending more than they have to," noted Williams.
But neither party wants to look ineffectual by bringing less money back to the folks back home in time for re-election.
"The party schtick is to reduce spending, but they increase it because everyone in Washington is connected to some big special interest," says Lew Rockwell, president of the pro-market Mises Institute. "No one is fighting for Americans to have this big carbuncle off their back, which is the federal government."
And when they do, they’re often outnumbered. Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a libertarian in Congress, says he knows what it’s like to have both parties vote against his amendments to hold spending.
"There is a lot of room in a two or three trillion dollar budget to cut spending," he said Wednesday. "That’s what’s best for the economy, to cut spending and taxes at the same time. But there aren’t too many on the same wavelength, so it isn’t given much attention."
He says it’s not only mismanagement and pork that is threatening fiscal efficiency, but the unnecessary programs and agencies that make up the bloated bureaucracy. "It’s an inefficient system," he said. "But most people in Washington are here to spend money."