Sunday, October 23, 2005

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s office is circulating a memorandum that largely blames sharp Republican spending increases on the war against terrorism, an argument the Republican Party’s fiscal critics call an exaggeration and coverup.

The memo is the latest bid by the Republican leader to wage a counteroffensive against an escalating rebellion in conservative ranks over what budget hawks call a spending spree that betrays the party’s historical commitment to smaller, limited government.

The Frist-ordered memorandum, drafted by senior aide Bill Hoagland, concedes there has been “unnecessary and wasteful spending” in the past five years by the Republican Congress: “In a $2.5 trillion budget how could there not be?”

But it argues that the “case can be made that government spending over the last 5 years has not been profligate, given the geopolitical situation.” Mr. Hoagland pointed to two reasons for the increases.

First, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the ensuing global war on terrorism that has cost $290 billion thus far, plus the $50 billion that was included in the defense bill passed by the Senate earlier this month. Second, Hurricane Katrina, “the worst natural disaster in this country’s history,” which has cost $71 billion.

Although the prescription drug bill “has become a symbol of federal spending out of control,” Mr. Hoagland said, “the actual spending from that legislation … [has] only now begun.”

Federal spending has risen to nearly $2.5 trillion a year, which the memo calls “a large number obviously,” but it notes that the U.S. has a $12.3 trillion economy and that “no other industrial nation’s centralized government spends less than the United States, measured as a share of their economy.”

Federal spending accounts for about 20.2 percent of the gross domestic product, less than the 22.2 percent of GDP it averaged in the 1980s and the 20.7 percent in the 1990s. Were it not for the defense spending increases since 2000, federal spending would be 19.2 percent of GDP, he added.

Brian M. Riedl, chief budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said the memo showed “that congressional leaders still do not grasp the depth and consequences of their historic spending spree.”

A recent Heritage analysis of the budget’s growth in the past five years found that government has expanded 33 percent and “has pushed federal spending to nearly $22,000 per household — the most since World War II,” Mr. Riedl said.

Contrary to the Senate memo, “defense is responsible for less than one-third of the $610 billion increase in spending since 2001,” while spending on education rose by 100 percent, housing and commerce by 86 percent, community development by 71 percent, health research and regulation by 61 percent and veterans benefits by 51 percent, he said.

“Rather than make excuses for past excesses, lawmakers should instead focus on reining in runaway spending,” Mr. Riedl said.

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