Perhaps the greatest mystery in politics is this: How do voters keep Congress from overspending?
The incentives to outspend revenues are overwhelming. Each legislator wants constituents to believe he can deliver goodies -- that's the ticket to easy re-election. Politicians fight for seats on appropriations committees in order to hand out the most goods.
Party is largely irrelevant. The GOP may say that it is the party of fiscal responsibility, but GOP appropriators didn't get on the spending committee to not spend.
Which makes recent events in Washington so unusual.
It was a big story when OMB Director Mitch Daniels announced that this year's projected deficit has grown from a predicted shortfall of a $106 billion in February to $165 billion this month.
News stories concentrated on the ensuing blame-game. Daniels blamed the faltering economy and the war on terrorism. Democrats blamed the Bush administration's 10-year $1.3 trillion tax cut for the growing gap between income and spending.
This time, Daniels did more than point a finger. He made it known that President Bush was ready to counter congressional overspending with his veto power. The president was even prepared to get tough on the so-called "emergency" supplemental spending bill that he had scolded Congress for not passing. (The delay held up extra defense spending and post-Sept. 11 assistance to New York.)
Bush had asked for $27.1 billion; the House raised the total appropriation to $29 billion and the Senate upped the ante to $31.5 billion. As The Wall Street Journal reported, the bill included such pork as $2 million for the Smithsonian's worm collection. Congress added more than $4 billion in highway money. National Taxpayers Union spokesman Pete Sepp says this is a game both houses play: It's "how can we ratchet up the president's proposal to our satisfaction and force him to compromise on it?"
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., responded by calling Daniels "little Caesar." This is when you'd expect a GOP White House to cave in and spend. But in late June, House Policy Committee Chairman Christopher Cox, R-Calif., produced a letter with the signatures of 151 members who pledged to uphold a presidential veto of the supplemental spending bill if it exceeded $27.1 billion.
The public will never know how many arms Cox had to twist to get 150 Repubs and Democrat Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, to sign that letter. (Cox denies any arm-twisting; he says all he had to do was ask. There'd be more Democrats on the list, but he stopped soliciting signatures after he garnered enough to uphold the veto.)
Call it Christmas for taxpayers. After signing the shameful 10-year, $190 billion pork-laden farm bill, perhaps the Bush administration was performing an act of penance. On Thursday, the gambit paid off. Well, sort of.
The joint House-Senate Appropriations Committee announced a measure that recommends spending $28.9 billion -- or $1.8 billion more than Bush asked for. In a clever move, the committee passed the hot potato to Bush by letting the president decide whether to spend the overage. Figures.
The spending committee also retained the $4.3 billion in highway spending that it had inserted into this "emergency" bill.
Cox expects the supplemental spending bill to pass; OMB spokesman Trent Duffy said the White House is "pleased" with what it knew of the new bill. Said Cox, "I will vote against it because of the unnecessary non-emergency spending. But I take pride in the fact that the total amount of the bill is over $1 billion less" than the $30 billion insiders had expected from the committee "compromise."
All those sweat and tears to squeeze a measly $1 billion -- $3 billion if the White House is frugal -- out of a $2 trillion budget. No wonder the deficit is back and growing.