Politics & Policy

Born-Again Budget Hawks

Watch out, they're trigger happy.

After enjoying a month of remarkably smooth sailing, President Bush’s $1.6 trillion tax-cut plan has hit some choppy waters. GOP senators James Jeffords of Vermont and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island have broken Republican ranks to oppose the measure.

While Jeffords is staying fairly mum, his spokesman, Heidi Mohlman, explained by phone that “he’s indicated in the past that he’s interested in paying more of the debt down.”

Earlier this month, Chafee joined fellow Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Democrats Evan Bayh of Indiana, California’s Diane Feinstein, and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu in co-signing a letter to Bush. The bipartisan quintet worried that his proposal “could lead us back to a period of deficits and increasing national debt.” They endorsed instead a so-called “trigger” mechanism that would suspend prospective tax cuts if projected surpluses evaporate.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D., Calif.) is pushing the trigger in the House. She recently told the San Francisco Chronicle that her constituents “want the debt paid down.”

Too bad this newly discovered fiscal conservatism did not prevail in recent years, and especially last fall, when many of today’s deficit hawks were busily hatching new spending schemes.

Among Republicans, Sen. Jeffords has earned Citizens Against Government Waste’s lowest lifetime congressional rating at 46 percent. “For fiscal year 2000, tiny Vermont ranked fifth in per-capita federal pork at $90.48-per-resident,” says Sean Rushton, CAGW’s media director. “That is mostly the work of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vermont), but Jeffords certainly went along happily.” Since 1998, Vermont has lapped up $570,000 in maple-research funds and last year scored $400,000 for the Pyralisk Arts Center in Montpelier.

The National Taxpayers Union compares congressional votes for discretionary spending hikes against decisions to cut expenditures. This “Vote Tally” service found that in 1999 alone, Feinstein and Landrieu embraced net increases in federal spending of $72.7 billion. Bayh voted to hike outlays by $69.2 billion while Specter supported net increases of $65.9 billion. Rep. Ellen “Trigger” Tauscher voted for $55.6 billion in net spending boosts.

In this light, it’s especially instructive to compare the words and deeds of House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri. He complained in January that President Bush’s 10-year, $1.6 trillion tax cut “threatens our prosperity and could return us to the big deficits of the 1980s.” As NTU president John Berthoud notes: “In the 105th Congress, Gephardt voted to increase spending by $162 billion per year. Over 10 years, that’s…$1.6 trillion.”

These high-profile legislators are hardly unique. All across Capitol Hill, members of Congress lately have endured something akin to fiscal incontinence. “The 106th Congress under Republican control has given us inflation-adjusted growth rates we haven’t seen in at least 23 years,” laments Stephen Slivinski, fiscal-policy analyst at the Cato Institute. The numbers he shared with me were alarming.

In fiscal year 1997, federal domestic discretionary spending grew by 1.5 percent after inflation. FY 1998′s outlays rose 2.9 percent, nearly doubling that pace. Appropriations accelerated more than two-fold in FY 1999 to 5.95 percent growth. FY 2000 brought a 7.1 percent hike in spending, far outstripping last calendar year’s 3.4 percent inflation rate.

While former president Clinton requested $633.1 billion in non-defense discretionary spending for FY 2001, the Republican Congress approved $22.5 billion more than the Democratic White House wanted. Through 2010, the GOP Congress authorized $225 billion in spending above and beyond what Clinton proposed.

“Since the era of surpluses began in 1999,” Sen. John McCain (R., Arizona) observed amid last autumn’s budget orgy, “the Congress and the president have taken this to mean they now have a license to spend freely and irresponsibly without any adherence to limits.” Remember the vaunted “caps” riveted atop the budget in 1997? Since then, Congress has spent $83 billion more than those once-hallowed rules permitted. Facing Congress’ unrelenting profligacy, the newfangled tax-cut trigger would be a revolver without bullets. As Sen. John Breaux (D., La.) told reporters last week, the only trigger he ever liked was Roy Rogers’ horse.

G. W. Bush is absolutely right. The only way to protect tax overpayments— the budget surplus — is to return them to America’s taxpayers. Unless those funds are liberated, they will be consumed on Capitol Hill. Trusting Congress with the surplus is like asking a gang of arsonists to guard a lumberyard. America’s beleaguered taxpayers should demand a tax cut at least as large as the president’s $1.6 trillion measure, lest the surpluses they produce go up in smoke.

Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor and a contributing editor of National Review Online, and a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research.


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