Michael Tanner

The conventional wisdom, pushed for very different reasons by both Republicans and Democrats, is that Republicans in Congress, controlled by radical tea-partiers, have been slashing government spending. Thus it becomes a little hard to understand how, in the few short months since last year’s debt-ceiling deal, the federal debt has increased by more than $1.5 trillion, roughly $13,000 per household. If Republicans are such great budget cutters, how come we continue to spend more, run more deficits, and accumulate more debt?

The latest evidence suggests that it is because, contrary to conventional wisdom, Republicans still aren’t such radical budget hawks after all.

For example, the latest Club for Growth scorecard suggests that, on the whole, Republicans in this congress have actually been less fiscally responsible than those in past congresses. For 2011, the average Republican received a weighted score of 69.5 out of 100. That’s far short of the 86.3 average score in 2010, and it hardly suggests a tea-party-led wave of austerity.

Forty Republicans received scores of 90 or higher, and nine — Representatives Amash (Mich.), Chaffetz (Utah), Flake (Ariz.), Franks (Ariz.), Graves (Ga.), Huelskamp (Kan.), Jordan (Ohio), Labrador (Idaho), and Lamborn (Colo.) — received perfect scores of 100 percent. However, 25 Republicans had scores below 50. In fact six Republicans – Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), Diaz-Balart (Fla.), McKinley (W.Va.), Smith (N.J.), Young (Alaska), and LoBiando (N.J.) — had scores worse than those of some Democrats, such as Dan Boren (Okla.). Interestingly, for all the attention paid to freshmen representatives who are supposedly in hock to the Tea Party, only three freshmen — Amash, Huelskamp, and Labrador — received perfect scores, while three other freshmen — Representatives Dold (Ill.), Meehan (Pa.), and McKinley — were among the worst-performing Republicans. Compare this with 2010, when 28 Republicans received a perfect score from the Club for Growth and only two had scores below 50.

Republicans still seem unwilling to make the tough choices when it comes to spending cuts.

Of course one could be argue that scorecards that focus on specific votes are not a particularly good measure of a lawmaker’s overall record. Perhaps the votes were tougher this year, or the Club for Growth stopped scoring on a curve. Let’s take a look, then, at a slightly different measure of fiscal responsibility, the National Taxpayer Union’s latest measure of proposed spending increases and cuts by members of Congress. By this measure, there has also been an improvement by Republicans in this congress, but not an overwhelming one.

Michael Tanner

Michael D. Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, heading research into a variety of domestic policies with particular emphasis on health care reform, welfare policy, and Social Security. His most recent white paper, "Bad Medicine: A Guide to the Real Costs and Consequences of the New Health Care Law," provides a detailed examination of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and what it means to taxpayers, workers, physicians, and patients.