Getting Serious About Spending

Talk is cheap. The federal government’s response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita won’t be. Congress now faces a test of political courage.

Will lawmakers have the spine to reprioritize federal spending, to stop hemorrhaging red ink and instead redirect funds to where they’re needed most?

During a recent news conference, President Bush sent the right message. “Congress needs to pay for as much of the hurricane relief as possible by cutting spending. I’ll work with members of Congress to identify offsets, to free up money for the reconstruction efforts. I will ask them to make even deeper reductions in the mandatory spending programs than are already planned,” he announced.

He’s echoing the message that people nationwide have been sending their senators and representatives for weeks. Local grassroots movements from Montana to Alaska have demanded that their lawmakers return money wastefully allocated on pork projects in the recent transportation bill.

The reason for the enthusiasm is obvious: Americans recognize that it is irresponsible for members of Congress to spend money on their personal pet projects when those funds would be better spent helping the citizens of the Gulf Region. And it’s intolerable that Congress has been willing to borrow against the future to do it.

Working from Congressional Budget Office data, Heritage Foundation Budget Analyst Brian Riedl estimates that Katrina relief spending will push fiscal year 2006 federal spending to an all-time high: $23,638 per household. And $3,800 of that amount will be borrowed.

Americans can’t and won’t tolerate passing along such enormous debts to our children and grandchildren so that Congressmen can brag about “giving” their constituents quarter-billion dollar bridges to nowhere.

The president’s line in the budgetary sand was clear: Congress should rescind wasteful pork-barrel projects and divert those funds to the important work of aiding the communities of the Gulf Coast.

But policymakers should take the next logical step. Any attempts to attach earmarks to any of the upcoming Katrina-related legislation must be rejected. Congress also should adopt a moratorium on any earmarks that would be attached to the remaining appropriations bills for the next fiscal year, and the total level of spending on those bills must be reduced by the amount of the earmarks. Nobody can claim to be a responsible lawmaker -- and certainly not a conservative -- if he responds to disaster by earmarking taxpayer funds for pet pork projects.

And the problem goes deeper. Given current spending patterns and the rapidly growing federal entitlement obligations, we’re about to witness a gargantuan growth in the size of the federal government.

To meet our existing entitlement promises without exploding deficits, Congress would have to hike federal taxes by more than 50 percent over the next 25 years. Total taxation would then eat up more than a third of GDP, severely hampering our nation’s economic prosperity.

Thus Congress must ask itself not only “What low-priority federal programs can we cut?” but also “Can we afford to expand entitlements when we cannot even pay for what is already on the books?” That’s why Congress must, at the very least, delay the Medicare prescription drug benefit for one year. This one step would save American taxpayers nearly $33 billion next year alone.

These two simple proposals -- ending pork and delaying the drug benefit -- are two small steps toward responsible government. Yet they are important steps that would prove our representatives are serious about addressing the urgent concerns of Americans.

Congress and the administration say they want to do the right thing. Now lawmakers have a chance to put their money where their mouths are. The House leadership is set to consider whether it should change its own budget resolution and trim other spending to pay for hurricane relief.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., says he wants the resolution to pare entitlement spending by at least $50 billion over the next five years—up from the previous target of $35 billion. It may sound like a lot. But $50 billion is only one-third of 1 percent of the $14 trillion Congress will spend over the next five years.

The Speaker also wants to cut discretionary spending across the board. House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, has proposed a 2 percent cut in discretionary spending—a move that would save another $17 billion.

Well and good. But Congress can and must do even better. To accommodate Katrina spending and get Congress back on the road to fiscal sanity, Hastert & Co. should come up with a resolution that provides $70 billion in spending offsets.

In doing so, House leaders could to yoke the renaissance of the Gulf Coast to a renaissance of responsibility on Capitol Hill.

Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.