WASHINGTON – War and recession have spurred Capitol Hill lawmakers to open up the purse despite ever growing deficits, prompting fiscal watchdogs to say the pork-barrel spending needs to be halted during these economically precarious times.
"It is fair to say we are shocked," said Sean Rushton, a spokesman for Citizens Against Government Waste. "We thought that between the war and the economic downturn that legislators really would look at the realities of the situation and put the country first."
Despite reports that the 2002 budget is already running $165 million in deficits and counting, 2003 federal spending measures are expected to exceed last year’s budget by at least 8 percent.
That doesn’t include a host of expensive supplemental bills passed recently, like the $205 million to bail out Amtrak and the $29 billion anti-terrorism package approved last month, which included a host of ambiguously-related funds like resources for New England fisheries.
On top of that, with the creation of a new Cabinet-level Homeland Security Department, observers say there is little chance that lawmakers will begin to show fiscal restraint.
"What we have to keep an eye on is the new Homeland Security Department," said Bob Bixby of the Concord Coalition. "It will be hard to say no to spending, and you can imagine that local and state leaders, as well as congressmen, will be redefining homeland security spending, like saying 'that overpass will need to be upgraded for national security,' for example. It’s hard to imagine what is going to take place."
But defenders of increased spending say it's critical to fund programs at home as well as federal needs.
"Congress has a very difficult job, the appropriators have a very difficult job, they are trying to stretch very finite resources to meet very demanding needs," said Tom Gavin, a spokesman for Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
"Congress still has a responsibility to meet the needs in other areas back home, like education and healthcare. You cannot ignore those needs. We need to recognize that we cannot just shut our eyes to the growing list of investments needed here and at home," Gavin said.
While the Senate has yet to pass a budget resolution that would set spending guidelines for fiscal year 2003, Gavin said the Appropriation and Budget Committees have passed resolutions capping spending at $768 billion. That's $58 billion more than last year's spending level, but $10 billion less than the House resolution passed earlier this spring, Gavin said.
The spending bills account for approximately one third of the total $2.1 trillion annual federal budget.
In the meantime, 13 appropriations bills are making their way through committees in both the House and Senate, with lawmakers tacking on millions for their pet projects in the process.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a transportation spending bill, for instance, of $64.6 billion, $3.7 billion more than last year, and $9.2 billion more than the level requested by President Bush.
Total spending for agriculture in the committee was $74.6 billion, $1.19 billion above last year and $200 million more than the president requested. The committee wrote in a release following unanimous approval of the bill that it rejected administration proposals that would have eliminated funding for many congressional priorities or limited the committee's flexibility.
"I think there is a definite lack of leadership by the president and some of the leaders in Congress" to hold back spending, said Chris Edwards, a fiscal analyst for the Cato Institute, who said the $190 billion farm bill passed earlier this year "busted the dam wide open" for irresponsible subsidies.
Edwards said he is disappointed that the usual set of fiscal hawks have allowed the spending spree to go on with little fight, including Bush, who talks a lot about vetoing and restraint, but does neither when he ultimately signs off on packages stuffed with overspending.
"I don’t see anyone talking about how the government is in the red again, there is no sense of urgency that we should solve this problem," he said.
Part of the reason may be that despite the expected $165 billion deficit this year, the issue is not expected to resonate with voters at the polls, say experts.
"I really don’t think it will become much of an issue in the campaign – and if it does it won’t stick the ribs," said Stephen Hess, a political analyst for the Brookings Institute, noting that "mostly everything that looks like pork-barrel spending to one person looks like a very important need to someone else."
Hess said it is a familiar "paradox," that no one in Washington wants to talk about going on a diet when times are tough. "But it was an argument in 2000 when we were in times of peace and prosperity."
Therefore, he isn’t surprised by the increased spending today, he said. "I’ve lived here too long and I’ve seen too much of this -- I know these things aren’t going to change."