- The Washington Times - Friday, November 26, 2004

The Republican Congress is getting flak for a 4 percent discretionary spending increase, fattened by a pork-stuffed omnibus appropriations bill that President Bush is expected to sign soon, as White House officials hint of tighter nondefense expenditures to come in next year’s budget.

The temporarily stalled $388 billion catch-all spending bill that goes to Mr. Bush’s desk sometime early next month will fund 13 departments and dozens of agencies for the rest of the 2004-05 fiscal year, resulting overall in lower nonmilitary, nonhomeland-defense spending increases than the president’s previous budgets.

But critics point to $15.8 billion in pork-barrel spending that Mr. Bush did not seek — including 11,000 earmarked items like $350,000 for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland — and the failure to eliminate perceived wasteful, low-priority programs.

“This year’s appropriations are 4.5 percent higher than last year and, sadly, this represents substantial progress,” said Brian Riedl, chief budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “But even this amount does not include money for Iraq and Afghanistan, billions for hurricane relief and other spending classified as emergencies to evade budget caps.

“The best that Congress could do was to freeze many of the worst-performing programs in this bill; but there are billions of dollars in wasteful, unnecessary programs that should be eliminated in order to finance higher priority spending for defense and homeland security,” Mr. Riedl said.

At the beginning of the year, Mr. Bush called for a 4 percent cap on nondefense funding and even Mr. Riedl, one of the president’s severest spending critics, said, “I’ll have to give credit where credit is due — freezing nondefense discretionary programs is better than the large increases they’ve received in recent years.

Paul Guessing, government affairs director of the National Taxpayers Union, said the bill “may not be an outright disaster compared to some of its all-too-numerous predecessors, but the legislation still has many drawbacks that earn it the title of ‘debacle.’”

Administration budget officials said that while more remains to be done to reduce discretionary spending, this year’s budget significantly has curtailed spending from previously higher levels that occurred during the president’s first three years in office.

“Overall discretionary spending grew by only 4 percent in fiscal year 2005. That’s all four of the appropriations bills that have been passed, plus the omnibus bill and defense and homeland-security spending,” said Tad Kolton, spokesman for White House Budget Director Josh Bolten.

“The president said we are going to spend what it takes on defense and homeland security. If you take those two areas out of the equation and focus on the remaining part of the budget, then nondefense, nonhomeland-security discretionary spending grew by approximately 1 percent, which is half the rate of inflation and is among the lowest spending growth rates since the Republicans took over Congress in 1995,” Mr. Kolton said.

But with his re-election behind him, administration insiders say Mr. Bush intends to tighten overall nondefense spending when he proposes his budget early next year for the 2006 fiscal period, which begins next October, targeting low-priority agencies and programs that do not work.

“The budget is shaping up but final decisions haven’t been made,” Mr. Kolton said. “We’re going to continue to restrain the growth in spending. We’re evaluating where the priorities are going to be next year and which programs are not producing results or are duplicative or redundant or simply are not priorities relative to other programs.”

Other budget officials who did not want to talk on the record said that there was much that Mr. Bush did not like in the pending 1,000-page, omnibus spending bill, particularly the large number of pork-barrel spending provisions, but that he was willing to sign the measure in exchange for overall lower discretionary spending.

To keep to a 4 percent overall spending cap, congressional appropriators made spending cuts in a broad range of areas. For example, Small Business Administration loan subsidies were terminated, $303 million was cut from the nuclear waste facility in Yucca Mountain, Nev., and $612 million was carved out of the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget.

But some of Mr. Bush’s spending critics expressed increased hope that he will cut deeper in his future budgets.

“Bush has a good record of keeping campaign promises. In 2000, candidate Bush never promised to retrain spending but in 2004 he did and that may be the difference. The White House seems to be looking at budget savings for their fiscal 2006 proposal,” Mr. Riedl said.

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