Conservatives Hope GOP Sticks to Proposed Cuts

Posted February 7, 2005 at 6:50pm

President Bush’s budget, though only a day old, is already causing a lot of heartburn on Capitol Hill, most notably because it challenges the conservatives who run Congress to put up or shut up on the spending of taxpayer money. [IMGCAP(1)]

“I do think the president, with this budget, is calling us back to our roots,” said Senate Budget Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) of explicit pressure by the White House on Congress to act on conservative principles and eliminate or starve government programs.

Yes, Bush’s $2.5 trillion 2006 budget essentially builds on the austerity of last year’s proposal, whereby spending for non-defense, non-homeland security accounts was limited to a 1 percent increase. This year, Bush is looking for a 1 percent cut, and he’s framing the debate by talking about his budget in philosophical terms.

“In every program, and in every agency, we are measuring success not by good intentions, or by dollars spent, but rather by results achieved,” Bush wrote in his budget message. “My Administration is pressing for reforms so that every program will achieve its intended results. And where circumstances warrant, the 2006 Budget recommends significant spending reductions or outright elimination of programs that are falling short.”

Bush has accented that resolve by proposing cuts in traditionally sacrosanct defense weapons programs and farm subsidies that could disproportionately hurt farmers in heavily red states.

Political consequences be damned: That’s just the kind of talk that’s music to the ears of conservative watchdog groups and hard-liners in Congress.

“I hope that the president is serious, and that he will wield the veto pen, and that he’ll enforce it that way,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has made his career in Congress on criticizing government spending.

Still, Flake and others who want Congress to answer the call for fiscal restraint don’t believe that their leadership is disciplined enough to do it, particularly given the pressures to secure so-called pork-barrel projects for Members’ home districts and states.

Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist said the problem stems from conservatives who count as their primary issues gun owners’ rights or opposition to abortion — rather than budget-cutting.

“Everyone agrees on spending less, but it’s everyone’s secondary issue,” Norquist said.

Plus, the pressures of re-election, which Bush never has to worry about again, can color the even the most conservative Member’s outlook on government programs — at least those programs that aid his or her constituents.

For example, while congratulating the president on his relatively strict budget proposal, Gregg noted that he “could name 5 or 6, or 7 or 8, or 20 or 30” government programs that the Bush administration either wants to cut or eliminate but that Gregg personally wants to save (though he declined to offer specifics).

“Certainly, they’re concerned about the midterm elections” in 2006, said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, which is best known for publishing annual “Pig Books” detailing Congress’ top-spending Members. “The presidential election was different because it was about the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism. Congress can’t run on the war in Iraq.”

Indeed, Flake said House Republican freshmen are “trained by the leadership” to rely on pork for their survival, particularly those in districts where Democrats are competitive.

For “the vulnerables,” Flake said, “pork is shoveled their way.”

Noting that there were $20 billion in earmarks — that is, money set aside for a pet projects in Member districts — in last year’s omnibus spending bill, Flake said Congress will never succeed in controlling spending if they continue to load up spending bills with specific requests from lawmakers.

“It’s not enough to meet the [budget cap]. You can’t be wasting it on earmarks. It compounds the problem year after year,” said Flake. “I sense no willingness at all to confront that.”

Norquist said conservatives outside of Congress have been trying to convince the rank and file that their re-election does not depend on larding up spending bills with earmarks for museums and community centers.

“These guys have convinced themselves that this is what gets you elected,” said Norquist. “We’ve got to convince people that it’s not shameful to not fill up your sack with goodies. … We’re trying to make the case to Republicans that nobody gets elected because of this kind on spending.”

Despite the initial plaudits from conservatives, $2.5 trillion is hardly a small-government budget.

Still, when confronted with that reality, Gregg indicated that Congressional budget writers and the White House are satisfied with baby steps to achieve their ultimate goals.

“This budget does not let the government grow faster than the rate of growth of the economy,” said Gregg. “This is not a time when we can have guns and butter in excess. We’re going to have a lot of butter, but not as much.”

Given that Republicans on the Appropriations panels on both sides of the Capitol take the brunt of the criticism when it comes to allegations of Congressional overspending, appropriators have naturally been a little defensive.

They contend that they’re not the problem and cite their ability last year to adhere what was considered a modest $822 billion discretionary spending cap.

John Scofield, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, said that appropriators have come under fire for not eliminating programs that the administration has requested in the past. But he noted that appropriators also showed restraint in refusing to fund new programs proposed by the Bush administration.

And this year, with just $20 billion more overall to work — but with a scant $400 billion to allocate in non-defense spending — they’re putting the onus for deficit reduction on the committees that authorize mandatory spending programs.

“The Appropriations Committee will do its part to hold the line on spending, but we only control a third of the federal budget. Meaningful deficit reduction can only be achieved by taking a hard look at mandatory spending,” said House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) in a statement.

Indeed, the president has called for some sharp cuts in farm subsidies and Medicaid spending, which conservatives on the Hill have embraced as a signal that the core GOP philosophy of smaller government and an end to entitlement programs is a high priority for this administration.

“You’ve got to go hunting where the ducks are, and that’s where the ducks are, in entitlement spending,” Flake said.

If that holds, then the real people on the hot seat will be House Agriculture Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) who oversee farm subsidies; House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), who oversees Medicaid; and House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) and Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who oversee Medicare and Social Security.

To be sure, the Bush budget calls for some serious cost reductions in mandatory spending, and part of that will be to offset making the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 permanent.

Even though Democrats grouse that the White House is paying for tax cuts for the rich at the expense of government programs for the poor, it’s all part of the larger ideological bent of this budget.

“The best way to control government is to reduce the amount of revenues … to force fiscal activity that is restrained,” Gregg said.

But for all their philosophical rumination, it’s still a tossup on whether Congressional Republicans will really walk the walk.

“It’s at least starting a discussion. How far it gets this year, we’ll have to see,” said Sean Spicer, spokesman for the House Budget Committee.