Tea Party’s message on deficit: Is Congress listening?

Demian Brady Contributor
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It’s not a news flash that the rapid growth of the federal government is alarming a large number of Americans.  Their outrage is witnessed in the rise of the Tea Party movement that marched on the National Mall and flocked to town hall meetings with an “SOS message” to Congress: Stop Over-Spending! But are lawmakers hearing this plea? A recent study from the National Taxpayers Union Foundation (NTUF) provides clues that at least some may be opening their ears.  For the first time in over a decade, there is a rising number of representatives and senators whose legislative agendas, if enacted into law, would decrease spending.

NTUF’s one-of-a-kind BillTally program researches the net cost – and the occasional savings – of each bill sponsored or cosponsored by every Member of Congress in order to calculate his or her “net spending agenda.”  Unlike voting records, these agendas comprise all the legislation a lawmaker actively backs, not just bills that make it to the House or Senate floor.  When BillTally began in 1991, there were only 32 “net cutters” – those with agendas to lower instead of raise federal expenditures – in the House and Senate. During the next two Congresses mounting concern about budget deficits drove the number of net cutters to 308 by the year 1995 – roughly half of the House and three-fourths of the Senate.

Yet, the budget-trimming efforts enacted during the 104th Congress, along with an economic expansion that flooded the Treasury with tax revenues, weakened adherence to fiscal discipline. As the budget deficits transformed into surpluses, the then-Republican majority became more interested in leveraging Congress’s power of the purse for electoral purposes: members targeted “earmarks” and other spending toward swing districts.  By the 108th Congress, the number of net cutters dwindled to 12. This figure saw a slight improvement to 41 by the end of the 110th Congress. But in today’s climate, 143 members of the current Congress are responding to the Tea Party’s challenge to cut spending. Although those who would increase spending still heavily outnumber the net cutters, fiscal discipline, as an idea if not a common practice, just might be making a comeback.

Who makes up these ranks of fiscal disciplinarians?  Four in the House were Democrats (led by Rep. Paul Hodes (NH) with an agenda to cut $9.6 billion), and the rest were Republicans (including 58 that would cut spending by $100 billion or more).  At the front of this pack was Ohio Representative Jim Jordan, who would cut spending by $229.8 billion. Among the net cutters in the Senate were 23 Republicans, headed by John Cornyn (TX) with an agenda to reduce outlays by $78.6 billion; and one Democrat, Senator Russ Feingold (WI) with an agenda to cut $42.2 billion.

So how would these members trim the budget? The most popular idea is to prevent members of Congress from receiving an automatic pay raise – a relatively small savings of $3 million, but the symbolism this act signals is huge. Another popular proposal is to repeal the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a.k.a. the “stimulus,” which initially would have saved $458 billion over five years.  As of the end of July, however, “only” $145 billion remained unobligated and available to reduce expenditures.

Many bill sponsors also advocate enacting across-the-board reductions of discretionary spending that, depending on the particulars, would save between $5.6 billion (a one percent rescission) and up to $28 billion (for a five percent rescission). Bills to repeal authority to extend the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) could have saved up to $28 billion as long as unobligated TARP funds aren’t simply spent elsewhere, and the program’s loans are paid back.

Bills that would impose strict spending caps, however, tend to offer the biggest and longest-lasting cuts. There were two such proposals in the House and one in the Senate to save between $40 billion and $131 billion. The across-the-board rescissions and especially the caps have an advantage over other savings proposals in that they do not specify which programs to cut – details that could aggravate special interest groups and voters dependent on federal funding. Instead, the sacrifice is spread out and shared.

How much of an impact will these make on our budget deficit? The answer is a measurable but not a huge difference. According to updated projections from the White House, this fiscal year’s outlays will reach $3.6 trillion, of which nearly $1.5 trillion amounts to deficit spending. The agenda of the biggest “net cutter” would trim about 15 percent from the deficit, and six percent of total budget outlays. Even passing all the unique, non-overlapping savings proposals in the House would cut $311 billion, or a little more than 20 percent of the shortfall.

As bad as the budget picture looks today, it will only get worse in the future. The latest figures from the Government Accountability Office calculate that America faces unfunded liabilities totaling $45.9 trillion for entitlement programs including Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. But most of the largest savings legislation drafted in Congress related to “discretionary,” non-entitlement programs, which comprise less than a 40 percent (and shrinking) share of total federal outlays. The long-term budget picture won’t clear up until our leaders have the fortitude to rein in all superfluous spending, a challenge made more difficult with the brand new health-care entitlements recently passed into law.

As NTUF’s BillTally indicates, some members of Congress do seem compelled to respond in some way to the Tea Party’s “SOS message.”  But now that Americans are coming to understand the magnitude of the deficit, those Tea Partiers will probably be more inclined to turn up the volume, just to make sure more lawmakers start listening.

Demian Brady is senior policy analyst with the National Taxpayers Union Foundation and is the author of the BillTally report.