End the fiscal follies
The new record set by Congress two weeks ago is a clear sign that Democrats are more concerned with political calculation than working with the White House to pass new appropriations bills that could avoid the president’s veto pen.
Oct. 26 marked the tardiest date in 20 years that Congress has failed to send a single appropriations bill to the president. The reasons for this dubious milestone are many, perhaps chief among them is a discrepancy between President Bush’s budget proposal and the $22 billion increase in spending Democrats are seeking for a host of largely domestic measures they hope will decrease poverty and boost environmental activism.
Despite the Oct. 1 fiscal year deadline, the government is still up and running, thanks to a continuing resolution (CR) adopted to sustain last year’s funding levels until Congress approves a new budget.
Press reports indicate that House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, Wisconsin Democrat, with the blessing of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, is willing to compromise in hopes of avoiding a presidential veto. However, their bipartisan commitment is suspect since House Democrats have refused to name conferees on half a dozen appropriations bills approved by both chambers on bills that would fund everything from homeland security to veterans affairs and defense. Such stonewalling is unacceptable.
And while it’s true the $22 billion in extra spending Democrats want is a small fraction of Mr. Bush’s $2.9 trillion budget proposed in February, the path Democrats are seeking is troubling. It comes down to a difference of a 6.8 increase in discretionary spending proposed by Mr. Bush rather than a 9.4 percent increase put forth by Democ- rats. This is likely to result in a $275 billion increase over 10 years in baseline spending, according to Brian Riedl, a budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
From a policy viewpoint, Congress’ 20 year milestone is not particularly significant. There have been only three Con- gresses in the last 31 years that have not skated by on at least one CR funding bill, and only eight of the 31 were able to approve appropriations bills by the Oct. 1 deadline. However, politically speaking, the appropriations process is a losing political issue for Democrats in that it showcases their inability to move legislation through Congress.
It also seems that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, is digging in his heels and hankering for a political showdown with Mr. Bush, perhaps even willing to roll all the spending mea- sures into one huge omnibus bill that is sure to be vetoed. Democrats are hoping this rejection by Mr. Bush — who is finally claiming a mantle of fiscal responsibility though most of his presidency was spent expanding federal spending to unprecedented levels — could come back to haunt Republicans during next year’s elections. At this point, it seems unlikely, since Congress’ approval ratings have plummeted to 11 percent in some polls. It is risky for Democrats to choose this route, when it is in their interest to pass the spending measures and move on to other issues.
Further exacerbating the situation is the perennial problem of earmarks. While it’s true that not all earmarks are created equal, Congress has the responsibility to review and reduce unrelated pork projects as much as possible. But Congress has chosen to reject this careful deliberative process, evidenced two weeks ago by the majority of senators who approved $400 million in earmarks, many unrelated, to an appropriations bill to fund health, education and labor programs. (A singular bright spot was movement by conservatives who were able to nix a $1 million earmark that would have paid for a museum commemorating the 1969 Woodstock music festival.)
As the budget showdown stretches into November, Democrats must put bipartisan cooperation ahead of political calculation. Otherwise, their campaign promises of efficiency and fiscal responsibility made during the last cycle will continue to ring hollow.