- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2001

Recently updated budget estimates by the administration and the Congressional Budget Office have sent spinmeisters on both sides of the aisle into overdrive.

Democrats led by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle have been quick to blame President Bush and congressional Republicans for squandering the budget surplus by forcefully passing a "massive" tax cut. The president and his fellow Republicans have been quick to their heels to defend the "second biggest surplus in American history" despite the economic slowdown that began a year ago.

There may be a kernel of truth in what both sides are saying. Tax relief and the slowing economy are certainly two of the factors that have led to the lower surplus estimates. However, the fact is that no matter how they are measured, budget surpluses only dwindle when politicians spend more than we send them.

By every measure, federal spending has been increasing at record rates recently. Non-defense, discretionary spending, which Congress and the president must approve each year, has been increasing by 6 percent annually over the past four years, the period covered by Bill Clinton's second-term budget proposals. That compares with annual increases of only 2.8 percent during the first Clinton term, 1994 through 1997.

A difference of just over 3 percent may not seem like a lot, but consider the following. There would be an additional $117 billion in Uncle Sam's bank account today had Mr. Clinton and Congress managed to control themselves and kept non-defense, discretionary spending increases at a constant rate of 2.8 percent over the past four years. That would have been more than enough to cover the first two years of tax relief passed earlier this year.

In other words, a bit of fiscal austerity during Clinton's second term would have saved enough money to give Americans tax relief and $117 billion additional debt relief, or tax relief and $117 billion dedicated to truly reforming Social Security and Medicare.

Instead, the same politicians that are now bellyaching over their lower allowance have spent the past four years spending taxpayer money on wasteful government programs.

Just last year, for example, Congress and Mr. Clinton approved $175 million for Department of Energy "management and operating contractors … travel expenses," enough for 275 first-class, transcontinental airline flights every single day of the year. What is ironic about this astronomical figure is that it actually represents less than the department requested for such travel of scientists from one federal lab to another.

Other examples of fiscal folly abound. Congress appropriated $200,000 for a study of international asparagus competitiveness last year; $5,000,000 for the National Sheep Industry Improvement Center; and $3,000,000 to study the need for reverse commuting in the state of Oklahoma.

This is not to say that these are not all worthwhile and important studies, centers of agricultural learning, commuter issues and … OK, no matter how you look at it, $175 million for contractor travel is a bit much. The point is that lawmakers looking to blame each other for dwindling surpluses should first look at controlling spending.

There is still time for Congress and the president to practice some fiscal austerity and ensure substantial budget surpluses well into the future. Congress has yet to pass any of the 13 appropriations bills for next fiscal year. Democrats in Congress are waiting for the president to make the first move.

The right step is for the president to insist that every appropriation bill that hits his desk keep non-defense discretionary spending at the same levels as this past year. That would ensure that no matter how measured or defined, the federal government continues to operate in the black over the next couple of years.

John S. Barry is director of research and chief economist at the Tax Foundation.


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