- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Last week, House Deputy Whip Mike Rogers of Michigan, a rising star in the Republican Party and a self-described “deficit hawk,” shocked a group of political supporters by announcing he was reconsidering his support for a balanced budget. Is this a congressional version of the Stockholm Syndrome — where Beltway hostages start agreeing with big government captors?

Not quite. Mr. Rogers was joking about changing his position, but in doing so, he was weaving a modern political parable about an age-old Washington problem. Curbing federal spending is always difficult, and it gets even harder when the budget is balanced or running surpluses.

Advocating spending restraint has never been easy or popular, but House Republicans unveiled a new strategy yesterday that is a step in the right direction. This initiative will help balance the budget and make it more likely Congress can sustain fiscal discipline in the future.

The House Budget Committee also has strong evidence to support Mr. Rogers’ thesis. Committee analyses, for example, demonstrate that spending increased 6.3 percent since Republicans gained majority status after the 1994 election, but 7.7 percent since the last balanced budget in 1999.

Budget experts believe lawmakers had a sound fiscal plan in 1997, which led to the last balanced budget. It combined economic growth proposals with policies to restrain spending. This plan, which was supposed to balance the budget in five years, actually did it in two, thanks to a strong economy and spending restraint. Yet, how to maintain balance and spending restraint moving forward were less clear. “The problem was not the balanced budget,” one House Budget Committee aide said. “It was knowing what to do once we got there. If you are on a weight loss diet and you reach your goal, your next goal should not be binge eating.” The House GOP plan announced yesterday, directs each congressional committee to find waste totaling 1 percent of the programs under their jurisdiction and report to the Budget Committee by early September. The goal is to find $10 billion in savings the first year. These savings would not be achieved by cutting any benefits. For example, the committee estimates that the Department of Veterans Affairs could save $15.6 million by recovering benefits erroneously sent to individuals who have passed away. After identifying the “waste,” one House leadership aide said lawmakers might combine all of these recommendations, creating an omnibus bill for consideration later this year.

$10 billion in annual savings is more than couch change, but the initiative is important for several other reasons. First, balancing the budget will only occur through a mix of tactics, including economic growth as well as spending restraint. Fiscal policy experts say lawmakers acted like the proverbial dog that caught the car with respect to balancing the budget — once achieved, no one knew what to do next — except spend more.

Second, someone has to ask — can’t we save money somewhere? It’s a matter of basic fairness to the American taxpayer. As one House Budget Committee aide said, “We have federal programs started 70 years ago to do things like electrify America. Last time I checked, that’s done.” Yet, unless someone starts asking these questions, federal government programs will continue to grow unchecked.

Finally, the spending restraint has an important communications element for conservatives. Someone has to break the axiomatic nexus between spending and compassion. It’s not compassionate to send millions in veterans benefits to deceased soldiers every year. Tactically, this initiative will begin to demonstrate that a fist full of money is not always the same as a helping hand.

When Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, Iowa Republican, unveiled his fiscal 2004 fiscal blueprint earlier this year, he did the right thing by proposing a mix of growth-oriented policies and spending restraint. And while the Congress ultimately adopted most of Mr. Nussle’s plan, many lawmakers balked at some of his most important entitlement spending reforms. Lack of time laying the groundwork for the way to achieve these savings was one factor. This new initiative provides lawmakers the opportunity to lay the necessary political predicate to achieve spending restraint by finding serious examples of waste.

Mr. Rogers should keep hope alive for a balanced budget. In the adaptive process of public policy, lawmakers now recognize that it’s not only critical to have a plan to get back to surpluses, but also a strategy to keep it that way. That’s not the Stockholm Syndrome — it’s good politics and sound economics.

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