Even Under GOP Control, Congress Signals Unwillingness to Stop Spending

Christine Harbin Hanson
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Posted: Mar 13, 2014 12:01 AM
Even Under GOP Control, Congress Signals Unwillingness to Stop Spending

Actions speak louder than words, and Congress’ actions over 113th session demonstrate a bipartisan unwillingness to get runaway federal spending under control.

An early indication was Congress’s actions on the Hurricane Sandy bill, a bloated, $50 billion pork-barrel spending bill that was ostensibly intended to help northeastern states recover from the storm. Due to its dubious emergency designation, spending in the bill didn’t count against the spending caps put in place by the 2010 Budget Control Act. Consequently, opportunistic Members of Congress from both political parties seized the chance to attach tens of billions of dollars in pet-project spending to the bill, using it as a vehicle to side-step the caps. Many of those add-ons—such as $150 million for Alaska fisheries and $2 million for museum roofs in Washington— were not directly related to providing immediate relief for Hurricane Sandy victims, undermining the rationale for the bill in the first place. These projects should have been considered in separate legislation and they should have gone through the normal appropriations process instead.

To make matters worse, Congress rejected efforts to offset this new spending. Before it passed the bill, each chamber voted down an amendment that would have paid for part or all of the emergency relief funds by making modest spending reductions in other programs. First on the House side, Rep. Mulvany’s amendment to offset $17 billion failed on a 162- 258 vote. Later in the Senate, Sen. Lee’s amendment to offset the full cost of the bill failed on a 35-62 vote.

These days, $50 billion may be pocket change in Washington, but Congress’s actions on the Hurricane Sandy bill foreshadowed a bipartisan unwillingness that’s characteristic of 113th session.

Fast forward to the final months of 2013, the budget conference committee presented Congress with an opportunity to honor its past agreements to control spending, but it reneged. Crafted by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan and Senate Budget Chairman Patty Murray, the resulting deal boosted discretionary spending to $1 trillion, exceeding previously agreed-upon spending caps by a whopping $45. Worse, the measure included new fee increases that will, among other things, leave taxpayers reaching deeper into their wallets every time they purchase an airline ticket.

Perhaps most alarming, the Ryan-Murray deal traded higher spending now in exchange for promises to cut spending in the future a promise taxpayers have watched Washington, DC politicians of both political parties break countless times before.

The most recent and most egregious example of unchecked spending during this session of Congress, the Farm Bill, authorized $1 trillion in spending over the next decade. Passed under the false pretense of helping small farmers, the bill was chock-full of handouts for Big Agri-business. It expands a number of corporate welfare programs such as crop insurance premium subsidies and revenue guarantees for politically-connected farmers. The bill also failed to make any meaningful reforms to ballooning food stamp spending, which has more than doubled since President Obama took office and is rampant with fraud and abuse.

It may easy to pledge to rein in spending in media interviews and in campaign speeches, but it’s quite another thing to put them into practice. Congress should remember its promises to control spending when the hard votes come up, as American taxpayers will be paying for these decisions long after most members leave office.