A Spree That's Spent

Posted: Nov 21, 2007 12:01 AM
A Spree That's Spent

Americans tend to support the art of compromise. In the real world, if everyone’s willing to give a little, it’s usually possible to reach a deal everyone can live with.

Washington, however, isn’t the real world.

Here a “compromise” spending bill doesn’t require any lawmaker to give up any pork project. In fact, most deals end up increasing spending substantially -- and sticking taxpayers with the bill.

Take the latest farm bill.

The Senate is considering legislation that would boost subsidies by at least $10 billion over the next decade, even though farmers are already reporting near-record incomes. The measure ups subsidies for the usual suspects: wheat, milk, sugar, peanuts, barley and oats. It also contains a new biofuel subsidy: $1 million per year for camelina seeds.

In addition, the bill would set aside more than $5 billion for a disaster trust fund. No doubt this fund will be used frequently; in recent years, almost two-thirds of the nation’s 3,141 counties were declared agriculture “disaster” areas. Can the rest of the nation be far behind?

Even the most plugged-in Washington insiders were blindsided by the size and scope of this bill. President Bush had declared he’d veto any irresponsible spending measures, and congressional conservatives thought they had the votes to swat down any new farm subsidies. “There’s very little left for a lot of things,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, complained just two months ago.

Then those Washington “compromises” started happening.

Expanded giveaways for peanut farmers won support from southern senators. Drought relief picked up votes in the west. Suddenly a massive spending bill had plenty of support and was headed for the Senate floor. That’s one way compromise proves costly.

Another way is when lawmakers tell each other, “I’ll give you everything you want, as long as I get everything I want.” That’s why spending bills are like snowballs rolling downhill: They just keep getting larger and larger. It’s no surprise that the Senate’s farm bill dwarfs the House’s version, which passed in July. The “compromise” version will probably contain all the big spending of both versions.

We saw this recently with the Water Resources Development Act. The bill made news because both houses of Congress voted to override President Bush’s veto -- the first time that’s happened to him.

What’s truly newsworthy about the measure, though, is the way it grew. The original House version would have cost taxpayers $15 billion, while the original Senate version carried a $14 billion price tag. Both far exceeded the $4.9 billion the president wanted to spend.

In typical Washington fashion, the competing versions of the bill went into a conference committee, and lawmakers decked it out like a Christmas tree. The already big-spending bill quickly ballooned as lawmakers added earmarks galore: $20 million for sewer overflow infrastructure in Atchison, Kan.? Check. $15 million for wastewater infrastructure in Willmar, Minn.? Why not? $5 million for drinking water infrastructure for the Village of Kyrias-Joel, N.Y.? Sure. After all, there’s no doubting the compelling national interest of projects such as these.

By the time the final “compromise” had been reached, the bill totaled more than $23 billion. President Bush deserves credit for vetoing it, as do those members willing to vote against it to begin with.

We simply can’t afford to operate this way. Farm subsidies alone cost Americans $25 billion in taxes and another $12 billion in higher food prices year after year. That means each household is shelling out more than $100 each year for food it doesn’t get to eat -- a real problem for working-class families trying to make ends meet.

Washington is “compromising” us, all the way to the poorhouse.