- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 5, 2007

Polling data on the issue of which party Americans trust to manage federal spending has turned upside down over the past several years. Republicans — viewed historically as more disciplined when it comes to fiscal responsibility — have now lost that advantage, according to many national surveys. In an Alice in Wonderland kind of reversal, more citizens now give the Democrats the edge on the question of stewardship over the federal treasury.

As the chart below suggests, Republicans held an advantage on spending discipline for many years, but that pattern reversed in 2003. And by 2006 and 2007, Democrats held a clear advantage on the issue.

As a longtime observer of Washington, I found this shift particularly odd. In all my years in Washington, rarely have I seen a debate where Democrats want to spend less than do Republicans. So why have the parties traded places on this issue?

One answer is obvious. Since September 11, Republicans have indeed opened up the spending spigots with alacrity. “We spent like drunken sailors” is a common refrain among many Republican lawmakers. It’s repeated often in the halls of Congress and usually given as one of the reasons the Democrats won back the majority in 2006.

But there is a more subtle explanation, one that might cause the issue to swing back in the Republicans’ favor over the next couple of years now that the Democrats hold the majority. Most voters didn’t pay much attention to Democrats’ spending proposals over the past several years. In the House and Senate, Democrats offered amendment after amendment increasing federal largess in budget and appropriations bills, routinely defeated by the Republicans. While in the minority, Democrats basked in the luxury of criticizing the Republicans, while never really being held accountable for their own spending initiatives — because none of them ever passed. In other words, they were shooting with legislative blanks. Democrats had big spending plans, but no ability to implement them. As a result, most voters heard criticism of Republicans, but never took Democrats’ spending ideas seriously, because they never passed.

Times change. Now Democrats can both call for more spending and actually do something about it. According to House Republican leadership documents released earlier this month, Democrats added $6 billion in new spending to the omnibus spending package approved in January. They boosted the fiscal 2008 budget $23 billion above the president’s request. Democrats added approximately $17 billion in additional spending to the Iraq war supplemental approved last month. Finally, they also increased the first four appropriations bills by at least $9 billion above the White House budget.

If this track record continues — and there is no reason to think it won’t — which party voters trust on spending could soon revert to its traditional pattern. Now that Democrats have the ability to put their ideology into practice, their true appetite for spending is emerging. Republicans are also doing their part pointing out the Democrats’ double talk on fiscal responsibility.

Democrats, however, have some tricks of their own. They intend to remind voters about the Republicans’ appetite for spending when former Rep. Jim Nussle goes before the Senate for his confirmation hearing to become the new White House budget director. This makes it hard to predict if the Democrats will continue their advantage as the party voters trust more on federal spending. But given the new majority’s track record so far this year, their edge may not last for long.

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