- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2001

Dont look now, but with the budget agreement reached this week, it now appears that federal spending is going to end up growing at about 7 percent this year — or almost twice the spending rate under Bill Clinton. Good thing weve got Republicans in charge to keep government as small and confined as possible.
George W. Bush started the budget process with a reasonable, but slightly overweight budget. He called for 4 percent growth in spending.(Inflation, correctly measured, is running at maybe 1 percent.)
The budget deal struck this week between the Congress and the White House ratchets that spending number up to almost 4.5 percent. Some of this extra spending, of course, was due to demands by those dirty, rotten Democratic spendaholics up on Capitol Hill. But a lot of it was a result of demands by those no-good spendaholic Republicans that seem to be dominating the Republican agenda these days in Congress. Many Hill Republicans, who pontificate against big government, were quietly breathing a sigh of relief over the new inflated baseline in federal spending.
Now a 4.5 percent growth rate of the federal budget may not seem like the end of the world and it isnt. But George W Bush campaigned for president on the promise that he would hold spending to a 4 percent rate of growth. So heres the problem: Were not even going to end up within spittin distance of 4 percent. History teaches us that the spending levels set by the budget resolution in the spring become floors, not ceilings, on allowable expenditures. Once the congressional appropriators start mending together the actual budget bills in the summer and fall, spending inevitably gets ratcheted up.
My prediction of 7 percent spending growth this year is based on several fiscal reality checks. First, expect to see about $5 billion to $10 billion in "emergency spending" for victims of drought, floods, hurricanes, meteors and the like. My estimate for emergency spending is conservative and falls somewhat below the average for the past four years.
The budget will grow faster this summer and fall than currently advertised for other reasons. First, Republicans will surely capitulate to Democratic demands for Medicare coverage of prescription drugs. Figure that to add at the very least another $10 billion to $15 billion a year to spending. Second, the Rumsfeld Commission on military restructuring will almost certainly call for more dollars into the defense budget. Ill sidestep the issue of whether the $300-billion-a-year Pentagon actually needs more money, because thats beside the point. The point is there will be more money for defense that isnt now accounted for in the current budget estimates.
Now the Democrats are making a play to allow up to half of the $100 billion tax cut stimulus plan for new spending, not tax relief. Of course, if government spending could stimulate the economy, we would see soaring rates of GDP and job growth right now. After all, last year the budget rose by almost 8 percent.
Whats behind this shopping spree impulse that has invaded Capitol Hill of late? Blame the towering tax surpluses that make extra spending seem prudent and affordable. Put a fat budget surplus estimate in front of appropriators and they start drooling uncontrollably like Pavlovs dog. This years surplus is on tap to exceed $200 billion, depending on whether Congress passes a $100 billion tax rebate.
Now some in Washington are already making excuses for the coming shopping spree. They say some extra spending this year is justified to make up for some years of excessively tight budgets. We need, they say, to start making some "investments" in federal programs to make up for the years of neglect. What neglect? Federal spending hasnt been held under tight reins in recent years. In fact, just the opposite is true. The federal budget for discretionary spending has risen from $534 billion in 1996 to $646 billion this year. Nondefense discretionary spending has risen by 2 percent to 5 percent over this five-year period.
The bottom line here is that someone has to start holding the line on spending. If Republicans allow the budget to grow at twice the rate it did under Mr. Clinton, many conservatives are going to start asking the legitimate question: What are Republicans good for? Of course, if the GOP can deliver the crown jewel of their economic program, the $1.5 trillion tax cut, this could excuse some excessive celebratory spending this year. But a 7 percent increase?
The ultimate defense against this spending bulge is the presidential veto. Mr. Bush must signal to Congress that 4 percent to 5 percent spending growth is a cap that he will enforce with his veto pen. Powerful presidents have proved they can use the veto to grow their clout, not as an expenditure of political capital. Mr. Bushs budget vetoes would be all the more cheered by taxpayers if they were rejections of Republican pork.
Ive said it before, but it bears repeating: Washington already has one party of big government. We surely dont need two.

Stephen Moore is president of the Club for Growth.


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