- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

Last August, President Bush demanded Congress curb its appetite for spending, “so that we can continue to send the signals to people around the country that we’re serious about being fiscally responsible with people’s money.”

Next day, he signed a pork-laden transportation bill that broke all records for public works spending. He and Congress have been sending signals, all right.

Back in the 1960s, Alabama Gov. George Wallace insisted there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties. But when it comes to federal spending, that always rang false. Democrats talk in terms of expanding government efforts to help people, which invariably costs money, while Republicans preach the need to limit Washington’s role in our lives, which ought to be cheaper.

These days, it’s clear Wallace was wrong. There is a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties. But a dime is about all.

Since 1994, the National Taxpayers Union Foundation (NTUF) has added up every dollar that every member of Congress casts a vote to spend. Today, it will release its study of how Congress did in 2005. The results indicate that, on federal outlays, there is only one party in Washington: the Spendthrifts.

The average Republican member of the House voted to boost spending by $168 billion, while Democrats averaged $178 billion. In the Senate, Republicans were even less frugal than in the House, voting for $183 billion in new spending on average. But Senate Democrats bid even higher, averaging $217 billion. These figures don’t even count spending on entitlements and other “mandatory” programs, which are also running out of control.

This dismal record is actually better than the one Congress compiled in 2004. Does it suggest a new frugality? Not according to Jeff Dircksen, NTUF’s director of congressional analysis: “There comes a point when they just can’t spend any faster. How many unmet needs are there that they could possibly pour money on?”

In recent years, they haven’t been pouring it on so much as spewing it out of a fire hose. Since 2001, expenditures have risen more than $900 billion, up nearly 50 percent. The expansion of federal discretionary spending has been faster than under Lyndon Johnson — who once was the king of the big spenders but has been dethroned by George W. Bush. And it’s not just outlays for war and homeland security that have risen. Under Mr. Bush, departments far removed from the war on terrorism, like Commerce and Education, have grown fat and happy.

Despite his avowed commitment to fiscal responsibility, Mr. Bush has yet to back up his words by vetoing a bill that costs too much. He has plenty of partners in crime. There are congressional Democrats, who voted for even more outlays than Republicans. But the leadership of the GOP, which controls both houses, bears much of the blame.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert voted to increase net spending by $245 billion, far more than the average Democrat. The recently departed House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist voted for $329 billion — nearly as much as the famously liberal House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Some well-known conservative Republicans — including Reps. Dana Rohrabacher of California, Mike Pence of Indiana, Lamar Smith of Texas and J.D. Hayworth of Arizona — were nearly twice as extravagant as the typical House member. What part of “conservative” do they not understand?

All this, says NTUF, is quite a change from the days when congressional Republicans were at fierce odds with President Clinton. In 1997, the average House member voted to actually reduce total spending by $6.2 billion, while the average senator voted for an increase of only $3.9 billion. Back then, the two parties chased each other in a virtuous cycle, competing to get credit for balancing the budget. That eventually produced what is now hard to imagine: a budget surplus.

Now the opposite occurs. Once Republicans abandoned spending restraint, Democrats were free to follow their natural instincts, which gave Republicans even more room to shovel out dollars, which encouraged Democrats to outbid them, which leaves a bloated budget and a deficit that this year will exceed $300 billion.

Reversing this race to bankruptcy will require elected leaders to stop spending like there is no tomorrow. But when it comes to that sort of wisdom and courage, Washington is suffering another deficit.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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