Discretionary, mandatory and unconstitutional spending

Terry Jeffrey
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Posted: May 04, 2005 12:00 AM

Some of the lingo used in the nation's capital during the recent debate over a federal budget resolution reveals the perverse perspective professional politicians have developed when it comes to spending taxpayers' money.

 "Discretionary" spending, they tell us, includes everything they spend on defense and homeland security. "Mandatory" spending, by contrast, encompasses, among other things, every penny they will dole out next year to subsidize the purchase of prescription drugs under a brand new entitlement program.

 Several sections of the Constitution expressly grant Congress the authority to tax and spend money to establish military forces to defend the nation against its enemies. Not one says anything about buying drugs for retired people.

 Had Congress exercised its alleged "discretion" not to fund a military in, say, 1941, or 2001, the American way of life could have been destroyed. But the republic has done quite well for 216 years without "mandatory" spending on prescription drugs.

 American freedom would not diminish one whit if the Medicare prescription drug program now scheduled to take effect in January were cancelled. Indeed, American freedom would be enhanced because seniors would not become dependent on the federal government for their medicines and taxpayers would not be liable for the $740 billion this program is now projected to cost over the next 10 years.

 So, why is spending on this program "mandatory"?

 When you get right down to it, "discretionary" spending programs and "mandatory" spending programs share one crucial characteristic: They are virtually indestructible.

 Congress creates programs, but almost never kills them.

 On close inspection, the new budget resolution reveals that Congress has now discovered just one small segment of federal spending that it is actually willing -- at least temporarily -- to restrain from growing (even though it anticipates a federal deficit of $376 billion next year).

 A fact sheet on the resolution released by the House Budget Committee says that overall spending in fiscal 2006 will be $2.56 trillion, up $80 billion from this year. Of that, $1.6 trillion is "mandatory" spending, up 7 percent from this year; and another $843 billion is "discretionary" spending, up 2.1 percent from this year.

 But within next year's larger pie of "discretionary" spending, all of the increase is concentrated in the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, which go up 4.8 percent and 2.3 percent, respectively.

 The full force of Congress' budgetary knife thus comes down on the little piece of pie left over: non-Defense, non-Homeland Security "discretionary" spending. This will be $391.1 billion next year, a decrease of 0.8 percent from this year.

 But don't jump to the conclusion that this 0.8 percent cut means Congress now lacks "compassion" when it comes to dealing with even this small slice of federal spending.

 On its Web site, the Budget Committee has posted charts to demonstrate that the cut is an anomaly.

 One chart, for example, shows that between 1998 and 2003, spending for the National Institutes of Health climbed from $13.6 billion to $27.2 billion. The chart is headlined: "GOP Delivers on Promise: NIH Doubled in Five Years."

 "Total education spending," says another chart, "has grown an average of 9.1 percent per year over the past five years."

 In 2000, when President Bush was elected, the federal government spent $33.9 billion on the Department of Education. Next year, according to the Office of Management and Budget, it will spend $64.2 billion. Neither Congress nor the White House is talking about rolling it back to $33.9 billion.

 The president and many Republicans in Congress strongly advocate naming to the federal courts only judges who will be "strict constructionists," meaning they will apply the Constitution as it was written and ratified. But do they practice "strict construction" themselves when it comes to creating and funding government programs?

 You can search the Constitution looking for a clause that gives Congress the discretion to create a Department of Education, and you will have no more luck finding it than you would finding the clause that mandates a federal prescription drug benefit.

 When the majority party in Washington is truly committed to bringing the federal spending under control, it will not use an annual budget resolution to govern its decisions, but the Constitution of the United States.