Thursday, November 27, 2003

Nondefense spending has skyrocketed under Republican control of Congress and the White House, and critics say the outlays will hit the stratosphere with the passage this week of a drug entitlement for seniors.

The Congressional Budget Office reported that nondefense spending rose 7 percent in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, nearly double the 4 percent discretionary spending caps that President Bush insisted Congress honor.

Since Mr. Bush took office in 2001, nondefense spending has leapt 13 percent — 21 percent if spending on the war on terrorism is included. And he is poised to become the first Republican president to sign into law a new federal entitlement: the $400 billion Medicare expansion to cover prescription drugs.

Sean Spicer, spokesman for Rep. Jim Nussle, Iowa Republican and the conservative chairman of the House Budget Committee, said the spending increases appear worse when lumping in the annual late-year “emergency” congressional expenditures that he said are little more than thinly veiled pork projects.

“Even without the emergencies, we’re looking at [spending] numbers well above inflation, and that’s definitely a concern,” Mr. Spicer said.

Chris Edwards, director of fiscal policy at the libertarian Cato Institute, said the Bush record on spending has been a major disappointment.

“My impression of Bush is that I’ve never seen him give a speech in which he says government is too big and we need to cut costs,” Mr. Edwards said, pointing out that President Reagan vetoed 23 bills in his first three years in office, while Mr. Bush has yet to unsheathe his veto pen.

Accepting additional spending is the price Mr. Bush pays for getting his agenda through Congress, Mr. Edwards said.

“When you have a president who has a bunch of his own spending initiatives like education and the Medicare drug bill, it makes it difficult for him to go out and say that Congress is being wasteful,” he said.

Prominent conservatives are beginning to chafe about the kind of spending occurring on their watch. Nine Republican senators and 25 House Republicans voted against the Medicare drug bill, citing cost as the major reason.

The $31 billion energy bill also has stalled, largely because many in Congress object to the price tag. The president is itching to get the bill to his desk even though it is four times more expensive than what he had proposed.

Even radio host Rush Limbaugh, an unwavering booster of the president and his policies, told listeners Tuesday that after passing the Medicare bill Republicans no longer can contend they are the party of smaller government.

The White House did not return a call for comment.

Brian M. Riedl, a budget analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, said mandatory government spending on entitlements such as Medicare will reach 11.1 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, a record high. That number will climb exponentially, he said, once seniors begin getting government-paid drugs in 2006.

“Congress often underestimates entitlements by a lot,” Mr. Riedl said. “By our calculations, it will cost $2 trillion between now and 2030.”

That’s assuming that the program never is expanded, he said, an unlikely scenario.

When Congress created the Medicare program in 1965, the projected cost in 1990 was $9 billion. The true cost, after several expansions that came with low-balled price tags, was $67 billion, 7.4 times higher.

“The lawmakers who pushed for the Medicare drug bill never answered the question of how they would pay for it,” Mr. Riedl said. “Apparently, they are leaving the $2 trillion tax hike to future congresses to figure out.”

Tom Schatz, executive director of Citizens Against Government Waste, said he hopes that conservatives can bring the president and Congress “back to earth in terms of spending” if Mr. Bush wins a second term.

“We hope that this is not the legacy of the Bush administration,” Mr. Schatz said. “We hope these will be aberrations that will be corrected in coming years.”

A senior Republican congressional aide said many conservatives on Capitol Hill are hoping that is the case. If it isn’t, Mr. Bush and the party will have some explaining to do to their political base.

“There’s only so long we can be told [by the White House], ‘Just keep waiting for spending restraint,’” the aide said. “Eventually you develop a credibility problem. There’s a point where people say, ‘We’ve heard that for five years and nothing’s happened.’”

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