- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 20, 2006

Like the weather, fiscal responsibility is one of those topics everyone discusses but seemingly can’t do anything about. In the past the Republicans talked a lot about it. But that was when they were essentially a minority assemblage of backbenchers with little ability to do much except carp.

So when they took over the Congress from the Democrats, the traditional party of spenders, 12 years ago for the first time in four decades with a budget amazingly in balance because of a flood of revenues from the “new economy,” there was little fear prospects were anything but good for continued fiscal sanity even if the bubble burst, which it did, of course. Well, ha. Actually, double ha.

As those who watch waste in this burg pointed out recently, total federal spending has only grown 67 percent since the Republican revolution of 1994 — from $1.5 trillion in 1995 to almost $2.5 trillion last year. Those figures have the conservatives not only furious but threatening to boycott their party of preference in the midterm elections even if it costs the GOP control of the House and perhaps the Senate and leaves President Bush’s programs, such as they are, in peril.

In the old days, there was some belt-tightening in times of war and massive natural disaster, and there certainly were many promises this time about financing the conflict in Iraq, rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast by capturing funds from less vital areas. Meeting the unexpected costs by cutting other expenses is, after all, an old household budget trick one would think was familiar even to most members of Congress. But if so, it has been only a passing familiarity of late.

Over the last 10 years discretionary spending — the 40 percent of the budget the Congress and the president control — has increased 65 percent. Since Mr. Bush became president, it has jumped 49 percent, according to Waste Watch, the newspaper of the Citizens Against Government Waste and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste. Even excluding spending related to Katrina, defense and homeland security, discretionary expenditures jumped 22 percent.

Perhaps more startling, this spending energy has been fueled by nearly unprecedented consumption of pork — the government variety, that is. Pork-barrel projects in the federal budget grew from 1,439 in fiscal 1995 to 13,997 in fiscal 2005, leading one to believe Republicans had been so deprived of this kind of nourishment over the 40 years they were out of the majority that they couldn’t resist gorging.

Just a whisper of an appropriations measure causes frenzy in both houses as members queue up weeks ahead to insert their favorite vote-garnering projects. Conscious about the bad publicity in the past for “bridges to nowhere,” the good lawmakers cut back on the number of earmarks, from 9,963 in 11 appropriations bills, a 29 percent decrease over last year’s 13,997. That is highly commendable, right? But wait. The $29 billion spent on the reduced number of pork projects actually was a 6.2 percent increase over the $27.3 billion spent the previous year.

Among the “crucial” items listed in the Waste folks’ annual Pig Book was $13.5 million for the International Fund for Ireland which helped finance the World Toilet Summit; $6.4 million for wood utilization research; $1 million for the Waterfree Urinal Conservation Initiative, and $500,000 for the Sparta, N.C., Teapot Museum. These political necessities were provided at taxpayer expense while wind and water inundated Louisiana and Mississippi and bombs blew away soldiers in Iraq.

There did seem to be some good news in the annual survey. While Alaska was still No. 1 in the per capita consumption of pork, its $489 a person in 2006 compared to $985 in 2005. The total was minus the infamous bridge which even as tough a sourdough as Republican Sen. Ted Stevens had to abandon angrily. The runners-up were Hawaii with $378 per capita spending and the District of Columbia with $182.

Meanwhile, the 60 percent of the budget that is mandatory spending, including all the big entitlement programs, is “on autopilot” with no sign either party will take over the controls. The borrowing to finance the debt and everything else goes on at a breakneck pace with the Chinese now among the biggest lenders.

That’s comforting. Let’s talk about the weather.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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