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“Summertime and money flows easy.” That’s the Democrats’ rendition of George Gershwin’s 1935 musical on stage in Congress this June as the legislative appropriations process hits a high note. Lawmakers in the House and Senate will pass most of the annual appropriations bills in the next two months, funding federal government programs for another year. But fiscal-discipline aficionados, get ready for some dissonance. The new majority on Capitol Hill will produce a concert of bloated appropriations bills this summer. For the good of the economy and his party, President Bush should systematically veto this symphony of spending.
Back by popular demand (at least based on the results of last November’s elections) are the sopranos of spending — congressional Democrats, who already demanded an additional $17 billion in expenditures in the recently passed funding measure for the Iraq war. They now want over $23 billion more than Mr. Bush requested to grow an even larger federal-government big band for next year.
But when it comes to spending, Mr. Bush has an opportunity to rally his party and remake Republicans’ badly damaged image on fiscal restraint. And the Democrats seem willing to give him that opportunity.
The White House is on solid ground when it comes to the economic benefits of fiscal restraint. While it is hard to hear any positive sounds through the cacophony of bad news about Iraq, the U.S. economy continues to produce sweet harmony. Steady growth, job creation, low inflation and a booming stock market are the consequences of six years of Republican fiscal policies. All of these things are threatened by the tax increases and excessive spending included in the budget recently adopted by the new Democratic majority.
As Congress begins crafting the twelve annual appropriations measures, the $20 billion in extra spending Democrats approved in their budget will get distributed throughout these bills. Based on current estimates, this means most of the appropriations measures will call for more spending than proposed by President Bush, producing plenty of spending largess to warrant vetoes.
To his credit, Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman sees the oversized spending sedan coming down the pike. “The Administration does not believe that the first step on the path to a balanced budget should be a substantial increase in Federal spending,” Mr. Portman wrote to congressional budget leaders last month. “Yet that is precisely what is called for in the budget resolutions adopted by the House and the Senate.” He warned Congress to keep spending in line with the White House request, or run the risk of the veto pen. “It is timely to notify you that I will recommend the President veto any appropriations bill that exceeds his request until Congress demonstrates a sustainable path that keeps discretionary spending within the President’s top line of $933 billion,” Mr. Portman wrote.
As a prelude to what lies ahead, the supplemental funding bill that included all the controversy with Congress about the war in Iraq alone added nearly $17 billion above the president’s request. “All that money can’t possibly be spent by the end of the fiscal year,” a senior administration official told me. “That should take some of the pressure off next year, but it doesn’t look like it based on what we’ve seen so far.” Conflicts with Congress over spending will dominate the legislative calendar now through September, providing both challenges and opportunities for Mr. Bush and congressional Republicans. These are challenging times for the GOP. Rallying around the principle of spending restraint can help the Republican Party and the White House re-brand themselves on an issue where they previously held a clear advantage — but lost.
Democrats will give Republicans a chance to reprise the popular theme of fiscal restraint as the new majority in Congress toots its horn as big spenders. Many liberals in Congress claim domestic programs are “grossly under-funded.” Most Americans won’t buy that, thinking there are a lot more “bridges to nowhere” in the federal budget. Mr. Bush should close the curtain on the Democrats’ new act and reclaim his party’s advantage on spending stewardship. Now in the minority, Republicans won’t get a chance to do an encore performance when it comes to controlling the federal budget. But with the help of Mr. Bush they can achieve the next best thing. By opposing the Democrats’ chorus of new spending, Republicans can reclaim the mantle of fiscal responsibility and convince voters they are serious about spending taxpayer dollars wisely after all.
By Brahma Chellaney
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