Congress Overdue for a Fiscal Spring-cleaning

By Lynn Westmoreland

You can’t go outside to play until you’ve cleaned your room, Mom used to say. We could use Mom’s wisdom in Washington: Our fiscal house has escaped a thorough cleaning for years while those entrusted with the nation’s purse strings keep playing as if all’s well.

Recently, I was forced to take a tough vote against an “emergency” spending bill when House leaders combined funding for the war with $19.1 billion for hurricane relief and various non-emergency projects. The “emergencies” included, for example, money for the Institute for Peace, New York City transportation projects and Radio Free Europe (even though the Iron Curtain fell 15 years ago).

The House’s emergency spending bill totaled almost $92 billion. That’s eye-popping enough but, compared to the Senate’s $106.5 billion plan, it looks almost like an exercise in fiscal discipline.

Want a whiff of rotten pork? Just stroll past the Senate and take a deep breath. “Emergency” items inserted by some of our esteemed senators include $3 million for tourism in southern and eastern Kentucky and $900,000 for Dartmouth College.

Even those projects are small potatoes when compared to the bill Mississippi’s senators want to hand the taxpayers. Senators Thad Cochran and Trent Lott added $700 million to the bill to move a rail line, appropriately dubbed the “Train to Nowhere,” further inland after it was damaged during last year’s hurricanes. The kicker is that the rail line was just recently rebuilt after the hurricane at a cost topping $250 million.

The Senate also took it upon itself to fork out $230 million for V-22 Osprey aircraft and $227.5 million for C-17 cargo planes, none of which the military had requested.

These emergency spending bills circumvent the regular budget process, escaping the scrutiny that Congress should carry out when spending Americans’ money. Appropriators take advantage of the process by stuffing the “must-pass” bills with big bucks for the folks back home as if they’re doling out free money.

This “emergency” budget bill passed the Senate this month despite President Bush’s vow to veto any bill that spends more than $92 billion.

Georgians can be proud that Georgia Senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson stood tall for fiscal discipline, both taking courageous votes against their colleagues’ pork fest.

Georgia’s delegation has led by example when it comes to earmarks. According to the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, Georgia ranked 42nd per capita in federal earmarks in 2004 and 49th in 2003. For 2004, Georgia received $18.58 per person in earmarks. By contrast, Alaska received $818 per person.

I have voted consistently against huge spending bills. The national treasury is not Congress’ cookie jar. Consider the $52 billion in Katrina aid that Congress passed last August: Yes, the federal government had to step in and aid Americans victimized by the worst natural disaster in our nation’s history. But no disaster should prompt Congress to start writing blank checks with absolutely no accountability. When we do that, the government ends up spending hundreds of millions on thousands of mobile homes that end up stuck in mud pits in Arkansas.

This year, the Congress raised the national debt ceiling to $9 trillion. Last year’s reported deficit was $319 billion, but take out the Social Security surplus and the actual deficit was $716 billion.

There are reforms that will at least point us in the right direction to fix this mess. This nation needs earmark reform, allowing members of the House to offer amendments to eliminate outrageous pork projects from spending bills. There is a need for a rainy day fund that Congress could tap to pay for future emergencies such as hurricanes, fires or floods. The president needs line-item veto authority, and taxpayers deserve a commission to weed out wasteful, inefficient and outdated programs.

There are some earmark reforms in the ethics package that recently passed the House, over stringent Democratic opposition. It’s a start. But it’s not enough; the fiscal mess is growing bigger.  It’s going to be a long time before we can go outside to play.

U.S. Representative Lynn Westmoreland, who represents Georgia’s 8th Congressional District, wrote this commentary for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

 © Georgia Public Policy Foundation (May 19, 2006). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.

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