WASHINGTON – A national tax watchdog group has found that the biggest spenders in the House of Representatives (search) are also some of the most vocal about the country not being able to afford tax cuts for fear, they say, of running up huge federal deficits.
But officials at the National Taxpayers Union (search), a conservative watchdog group that tracks member voting on tax issues, said the deficit argument is a red herring.
"To oppose the tax cuts out of fear of the deficit is problematic enough, but to use the deficits as a cover for their real agenda of much higher spending only puts taxpayers in double jeopardy," said NTU spokesman Pete Sepp.
NTU's BillTally survey (search) on the sponsors and costs of legislation in Congress found that of the top 10 spenders in the House, all had voted against the 2003 tax cut packages, and seven of the 10 had voted against recent proposals to make permanent cuts for the 10 percent marginal income tax bracket.
"It is disingenuous for members of Congress who are voting to increase spending to then say they are against tax cuts" because of budget deficits, said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste (search), which rooted out $22.9 billion worth of members' special interest, or pork, projects from 2004 appropriations bills.
"There is really little respect for people who are putting money into the system," said Demian Brady, who conducted the NTU survey.
But members cited by the taxpayers group say they don't see the connection. They say that the spending they support is necessary for their districts and the tax cuts are irresponsible in the face of fiscal hard times.
"Are we going to continue to give tax cuts or start investing in our future? We need to look at where we are going and begin to act responsibly," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., who is cited as the sixth highest spender in the House, having sponsored or co-sponsored bills with an estimated $1.7 trillion in new programs and increases over the 2003 fiscal year budget.
The other top spenders from highest to lowest are: Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., with $1.75 trillion; Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y., with $1.73 trillion; Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., with $1.73 trillion; Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., with $1.71 trillion; Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., with $1.71 trillion; Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., with $1.69 trillion; Rep. Julia Carson, D-Ind., with $1.68 trillion; Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., with $1.68 trillion; and Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., with $1.68 trillion.
According to NTU, Del.Eleanor Holmes Norton (search) of the District of Columbia is in fact the biggest spender, with nearly $1.9 trillion in spending proposals. But as a non-voting delegate, Norton doesn't approve spending bills or tax cuts. Her office told Foxnews.com that she does oppose tax cuts.
With the exceptions of Cummings and Nadler, all the big spenders are members of the Progressive Caucus (search). All voted against the tax cut packages, though Nadler, Owens and Gutierrez did vote earlier this year in favor of making permanent tax cuts for the lowest 10 percent of income earners.
Democratic defenders point out that not all spending measures pass, and those lawmakers know that typically, much of the spending they sign on to will never see the light of day. Even so, they do so to show their constituencies that they are fighting to bring home funding for their districts, they say.
"I don't think [Rep.Rangel] is really bothered by what the National Taxpayers Union says about him," said Dan Maffei, minority spokesman for the House Ways and Means Committee, of which Rangel is the ranking Democrat. "He is concerned about the welfare of his district. He is concerned about offsetting the tax cuts and making sure the deficit doesn't affect future generations."
But some colleagues in the House say very little of the money appropriated is truly given back to taxpayers who earned it in the first place.
"Congressmen and senators who oppose tax cuts and support higher discretionary spending are on the socialist float and eventually want to devour every productive dollar that individuals and businesses earn, and spend it from Washington," said Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla., who has been eyeing measures for fiscal restraint among his "Washington Waste Watcher" (search) peers.
An effort is being made in the House to offset or "pay as you go" for spending increases and tax cuts. The House recently passed a budget outline that freezes discretionary spending for one year, makes the current tax cuts permanent and institutes a pay-as-you-go (search) rule on further mandatory spending, also for one year. The Senate is currently debating passage of the bill, with moderate Republicans and Democrats seeking to implement pay-as-you-go rules as well.
Jenny McCue, spokesman for Rep. Nadler, said her boss is insistent that the tax cuts have caused the record-high federal deficits, which were earlier estimated by the Congressional Budget Office (search) to reach $477 billion for 2004, but were revised in May to be billions less.
"The fact is, if not for the tax cuts, we would have more money to put into homeland security and other priorities," she said.
Democratic concerns about the deficit are "a huge smokescreen so that tax cuts won't be accepted," countered Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas.
Hensarling pointed to studies that find the tax cut is merely 10 percent of the cost of the deficit. The rest is the result of bigger spending and the prior economic slowdown. Hensarling said he thinks the solution can be found in the Family Budget Protection Act (search), a bill he sponsored that would help curb growth in both mandatory and discretionary spending and sunset all federal programs in order to conduct cost analyses more rigorously.
"I would like to do more to increase freedom and limit government," said Hensarling, "but to do that we have to limit the growth of spending."