Freshmen Republican leads budget-restraint effort
Congress took an unusual step toward limiting its own spending last week, and leading the effort was a freshman Republican who is unknown nationally but is gaining a reputation on Capitol Hill for fiscal restraint.
Rep. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania sponsored an amendment to an “emergency” spending bill that would set aside $4 billion of this year’s projected $26 billion non-Social Security surplus to pay down the publicly held federal debt. The measure, which Mr. Toomey calls the first of its kind in the modern Congress, passed 422-0.
Rep. Michael N. Castle, Delaware Republican, described it as “an extraordinarily important precedent” and said it was the most important feature of the overall $13 billion bill, which provided money for U.S. military forces in Kosovo and drug-fighting efforts in Colombia.
“This is something we should have done a long time ago,” Mr. Castle said. “I hope we sponsor 20 more of these in the next few years.”
Mr. Toomey, a member of the Conservative Action Team (CAT), presented his proposal to House Republicans in a closed-door meeting Wednesday morning. Although an initial offer of $10 billion in debt reduction was pared down to $4 billion, the party’s leaders clearly saw its political merit in an election year.
“It should’ve been more,” said Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Republican Conference. “If I was king of the world, I’d have put the whole $26 billion to debt reduction.”
The bill now goes to the Senate, where Majority Leader Trent Lott is opposed to the overall package.
Mr. Toomey, 38, won the open seat in Pennsylvania’s 15th congressional district in 1998 in his first foray into politics. He defeated a well-known Democratic state senator with 55 percent of the vote.
Prior to running for Congress, Mr. Toomey owned a restaurant in Allentown, Pa., and worked as an investment banker. He supports allowing workers to invest some of their payroll taxes in private retirement accounts.
A member of the House banking, budget and small business committees, Mr. Toomey’s pursuit of fiscal restraint has prompted some observers in the House to call him “the new Tom Coburn.” Mr. Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, has led the battle in the House to rein in spending.
Said Mr. Toomey, “I find any comparisons to Tom Coburn to be flattering but premature. Tom’s done a great job.”
Rep. John Shadegg, Arizona Republican and a member of the CAT, said Mr. Toomey is “aggressive, bright but also reasonable.”
“Pat has been very effective in pursuing his goal of debt reduction,” Mr. Shadegg said. “He’s a solid conservative member who’s making a difference.”
Mr. Toomey compares with Mr. Coburn in another way he has limited himself to three terms in the House. Most political analysts consider his seat safe this fall.
While his debt-reduction measure passed with ease, Democrats and even some Republicans said Mr. Toomey’s proposal was mostly symbolic. The publicly held portion of the national debt totals about $3.5 trillion.
Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, said the measure is meaningless because leftover surplus in the Treasury would be used for debt reduction anyway.
“Let me congratulate the gentleman for making something out of nothing,” Mr. Obey said during debate on the House floor. “Only in Washington would that be considered a major event.”
But Mr. Toomey said critics are missing an important point the proposal prevents a portion of the “on-budget” surplus from being spent on programs, whose increased funding levels would set the stage for even higher spending in successive budget years.
He also said it sets a precedent.
“We have not had a surplus like this in over 30 years,” Mr. Toomey said. “My bill takes the money off the table. We could be debating surpluses for years to come, and this is not the end of the story.”
Republican leaders embraced Mr. Toomey’s plan last week, but some of them gave Mr. Toomey a chilly reception earlier this year when he tried to include a surplus-protection measure in the overall House budget resolution. That plan essentially would have ensured that non-Social Security surpluses could be used only for tax cuts, debt reduction or Social Security reform.
Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told Speaker J. Dennis Hastert he would vote against the budget measure if it included Mr. Toomey’s proposal. Mr. Toomey agreed to let Republican leaders remove his measure from the budget bill if he was allowed to propose the debt reduction amendment on the House floor.
Despite having complicated the lawmakers’ budget process somewhat, Mr. Toomey said House Republican leaders support his effort.
“I think they agree in principle with what I’m doing,” Mr. Toomey said. “They can’t impose fiscal discipline unless there’s some rank-and-file [members] demanding it.”