- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Public-policy wonks often lament the notion of twin deficits — one for the federal budget and another in the international trade arena. But recent trends in public perception suggest we add a third deficit to our lexicon.

Unlike the budget and trade gaps, which impact politics unpredictably, this third deficit, if not addressed quickly, could result in electoral harm to Republicans. Call it the “spending perception deficit” — a view that Democrats would do more than Republicans to curb the size of government. It’s an imbalance that GOP leaders need to rectify before the November election. This perception gap has never existed before. Democrats usually wore the spendthrift moniker — and their “tax and spend liberal” label was well-deserved. For example, a July 1994 Pew survey found that Americans, by an eight-point margin, trusted Republicans more than Democrats to reduce the federal deficit. By 2005, that number flipped to an 18-point Democratic advantage.

Spending remains a major issue among voters. In a Dutko Worldwide poll conducted two weeks ago, voters’ top four economic concerns were federal spending, gas prices, saving for retirement and paying for health care. Large majorities also think the government wastes a lot of money — 53 cents of every federal dollar, according to the same poll.

Some spending is almost out of the GOP’s control. Outlays for disasters like hurricanes and the war are the obvious areas. These expenses certainly contribute to the perception of Republicans as big spenders. Yet a unified government over the past five-and-a-half years has also contributed — in a subtler way. Republicans have struggled in figuring out how to investigate and root out waste, fraud and abuse when their own party controls Congress and the executive branch. They have also not re-established the kinds of procedural tools usually in place during mixed party control, like the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law first passed in 1985 or the spending caps put in place in 1990 under the first President Bush.

That’s changing, though. As outlined in our “Idea Lab” column on this page yesterday, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg of New Hampshire detailed the Stop Over-Spending Act — a series of proposals to rein in discretionary and mandatory spending, including a new version of the line-item veto.

Last week, House Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio released a 61-page report called “Target: Waste, Fraud & Abuse.” It provides a series of case studies highlighting the oversight accomplishments of the 109th Congress to date.

Both Mr. Gregg’s and Mr. Boehner’s initiatives are noteworthy. For starters, they remind voters that Republicans are vigilant in looking for fiscal abuses and adopting new tools to curb spending.

For example, the Boehner report outlines the efforts of 14 separate committees in Congress to find examples of wasteful spending under each panel’s jurisdiction. Highlighting a federal law that costs $77 million to save 20 fish or federal Head Start funds meant for children’s education being used to lease a Mercedes SUV for a local executive are just some of the examples.

The report also underscores the Appropriations Committee’s efforts in the past year. Despite the ongoing debate about earmarks, the study demonstrates that the panel eliminated 53 wasteful federal programs in the past year, with more on the chopping block as this year’s appropriations process unfolds.

But in order to reduce the “spending perception deficit,” GOP lawmakers should continue to emphasize the Democrats’ record as well. In last year’s appropriations process, for example, Republicans were successful in defeating a series of Democratic amendments that would have exceeded budgetary limits by nearly $21 billion. So far this year Democrats have proposed — and Republicans rejected — amendments totaling $45.2 billion in additional spending. Republicans now need to translate Mr. Gregg’s and Mr. Boehner’s initiatives into regular and sustained legislative action, bringing these spending-restraint items up for weekly floor votes. House action this week on the line-item veto and legislation to address fraud in emergency disaster spending and the Senate’s efforts on the Stop Over-Spending Act are great starts.

The GOP’s spending habit has produced a strong media headwind — when a party that has emphasized spending less starts spending more, the negative news stories by the self-appointed hypocrisy police will surely follow. Setting up a series of regular floor votes sustained between now and the election — even on what liberals may call small spending items or simply procedural tools — will go a long way toward helping Republicans close this perception gap and reclaim the mantle of fiscal responsibility.

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