House leadership slow to embrace spending cuts

Adam Berkland Federal Affairs Manager, AFP
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Weeks before their historic victories in the November 2010 elections, congressional Republicans released the “Pledge to America,” a set of principles for governing should the American people give them control of the House. Prominent in the agenda was a promise to “roll back spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels” and review “every current government program to eliminate wasteful and duplicative programs.” Judging by their recent votes, however, one can’t help but wonder if House leadership has abandoned their pledge for fiscal restraint.

Last Friday, while the rest of the country was talking about the Supreme Court’s health care decision, both chambers of Congress passed a massive spending package — legislation that was hardly a model for fiscally responsible budgeting. Among other things, the package authorizes $120 billion in highway spending over the next 27 months, locking in the massive 31% spending increase enacted with the last highway bill.

It also forgoes much-needed reforms like repealing Davis-Bacon labor rules that drive up the cost of construction projects or plugging a projected $67 billion shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund in the next five years — changes that would result in significant cost-savings for taxpayers. House leadership fought for some improvements (i.e., eliminating earmarks), but holding funding to current levels isn’t good enough when we’re borrowing more than 30 cents of every dollar we spend. Fully three-quarters of House Republicans supported this budget-busting bill.

The record on discretionary spending hasn’t been much better. Last year the House signed off on discretionary spending hikes — moving in the wrong direction. This year the House passed a budget that cuts $25 billion from discretionary spending, a 1.5% reduction. That’s progress, but still $97 billion short of the cuts needed to return to the “pre-stimulus, pre-bailout” levels promised in the Pledge. When a group of conservatives tried to remedy this and actually cut discretionary spending to 2008 levels, 104 Republicans joined every Democrat in the House to block them.

This foot-dragging is not due to a lack of good spending-cut ideas, because several have been rejected in recent weeks. Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) offered legislation to eliminate the wasteful Economic Development Administration, but 104 Republicans joined their Democratic colleagues in voting it down. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) wanted to end grants for “green” energy research that ought to be left to the private sector, but 107 Republicans led the charge in opposition. One might think these are just the type of “wasteful and duplicative programs” that the drafters of the Pledge had in mind, but apparently nearly half the Republican Conference disagrees.

In the end, despite much ado about slashing the budget, overall federal spending actually went up by $147 billion last year and the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projects it will go up again by $24 billion this year. No matter how you look at it, that’s a far cry from the significant spending cuts that were promised and the even more significant spending cuts we need to balance the federal budget.

All hope is not lost, however. The House is only half-way through this year’s appropriations process, whereby Congress actually doles out discretionary funding for federal agencies. There’s still time to comb through the remaining six appropriations bills and find areas where federal spending can be trimmed and waste can be eliminated.

The House will also mark up its version of the farm bill next week. In the version the Senate passed in June, 80% of the funding went to welfare programs like food stamps (SNAP) and other nutrition programs, which have exploded in cost in recent years and are in dire need of reform. The remainder was welfare of another kind: corporate welfare in the form of wasteful farm subsidies, the vast majority of which go to big agri-businesses instead of small family farmers. The House Agriculture Committee must recognize the bill for what it is (a welfare bill, not a farm bill) and pare back spending accordingly.

Ultimately, if House Republicans want to show the American people they meant what they said in the Pledge, they must seize these opportunities to make smart, bold spending cuts. Those Americans who swept Republicans into the majority in 2010 will be sorely disappointed if they don’t.

Adam Berkland is the federal affairs manager for Americans for Prosperity.