End the fis­cal fol­lies

The Washington Times Weekly - - Editorials -

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.

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