- The Washington Times - Monday, December 22, 2003

Many conservatives have joined the lament over current federal spending trends. Nearly every elephantine program Congress could conceive has met with White House approval. Respected columnist Bruce Bartlett recently quoted several conservative sources comparing this administration to the Nixon administration. It is easy to predict this current borrow-and-spend tactic eventually will backfire, if not from rumblings within the conservative movement, then by virtue of its own unsustainable nature.

The cherry on the top of this three-year spending binge is the approval by the House of Representatives — who voted 242 to 176 — for a prodigious omnibus spending bill. About one-third of the $820 billion bill is devoted to discretionary spending. It is doubtful there is much restraint or discretion exercised in the “discretionary spending.”

To give credit where credit is due, Republican leadership stood up to vigorous opposition from Democrats who accused them of not being generous enough. Thankfully, the Senate still has to reach its decision. The Senate is slated to return in mid-January to finish its work on the bill.

The funding of programs and agencies should have been under way back in October. The delay has had one real benefit for tax-paying citizens: Federal agencies have been forced to operate at 2002 funding levels for an additional fiscal quarter.

It is believed in some circles that a growing national debt will force politicians to curtail government growth. So far, we have seen none of that.

It is also commonly believed economic growth will reverse the effects of running up the national credit card. Although the economy is perking up, we cannot become complacent. Several factors are in play.

The falling dollar helps the domestic economy in the short run, but it also makes it harder for us to make those incredible interest payments. The interest payments on the debt are the third-largest budget item, running close on the heels of defense and entitlements.

If the dollar’s decline is accelerated, it could push interest rates higher and undermine the stock market. Caution is needed in case this wonderful recovery happens to be a mile wide and an inch deep.

Federal spending has jumped drastically and understandably in the defense budget, considering the one-two punch of being underfunded by the previous administration and the exigencies created by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But tack on $58 billion for “No Child Left Behind,” plus the bailout of state governments (apparently running without any adult supervision), stir in Medicare and energy spending, then add an enormous portion of pork and “Houston, we have a problem.”

Speaking of pork, there’s $50 million for a tropical rainforest in Iowa. No kidding. There’s $2 million for “The First Tee Program” in St. Augustine, Fla., to provide affordable golf for everyone. And if you like some fruit with your pork, you’ll enjoy the nearly $2 million going to West Virginia for the Appalachian fruit laboratory.

How about a fishy side dish? Nearly half a million dollars is going to Alaska for halibut data collection. There’s $725,000 for the “Please Touch” museum in Philadelphia.

The bill could otherwise make for entertaining reading if it wasn’t 1,100 pages of Byzantine gobbledygook.

Pork is the one thing Congress should be able to pen up. A politically practical answer exists. The Brownback-Tiahrt bill is one good plan for encouraging some real fiscal responsibility. Based on the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) model, and titled the Commission on the Accountability and Review of Federal Agencies Act (CARFA), two bills — S 837 and HR 3213 — will establish a commission to review federal agencies and programs. Entitlement programs are off the table and not available for review.

The CARFA commission will then make recommendations to eliminate or realign “duplicative, wasteful, or outdated functions.”

CARFA will force Congress to vote up or down on a list of recommendations in its entirety. This will allow real reform to emerge, and the deficit and debt problems to be brought under control. SB 837 and HR 3213 offer Congress and the administration a viable, arm’s-length alternative to federal spending gone haywire.

It is hard to stop a juggernaut as large as the current federal spending trend, but CARFA will certainly cause it to trip and allow it to slow down.

There are many great, positive things to say about this Congress and this administration. At the same time, there is an undeniable negative — federal spending. If more people are aware of CARFA as an important and politically viable first step to the spending problem, more positives will result.

Paul M. Weyrich is chairman and chief executive officer of the Free Congress Foundation.

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