GOP 'Spending Spree' Threatens Party's Grip on Power

By Randy Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:31 PM EDT

( - Eleven years after Americans routed Democrats at the ballot box over undisciplined spending habits, breaking the party's monopoly on power in Washington, voters may be leaning toward a similar punishment of the Republican Party, with the issue again revolving around the dominant party's spending of taxpayer dollars.

Even some of the GOP's most loyal activist groups are angry and frustrated, complaining about a "spending spree" or a Congress that has gone "whole hog while letting down every hard-working American taxpayer."

A Cybercast News Service analysis of federal spending reveals that non-defense discretionary spending -- which does not include such mandatory items as Social Security and Medicare -- climbed 79 percent between 1994 and 2005. The Clinton administration's $259 billion spent on such items in the fiscal year 1994 budget pales in comparison with the $464 billion in similar expenses by the Bush administration in the fiscal year 2005 budget.

The rate of inflation, meanwhile, as measured by the consumer price index, rose only 33 percent over the same time frame.

Republicans have controlled the U.S. House for all of those 11 years and the Senate for the entire time except for a 17-month stretch in 2001 and 2002. The White House was occupied by Democratic President Bill Clinton for the first six years of the Republican congressional majority, but Republican President George W. Bush has given the GOP a monopoly on power for most of the last five years.

According to a decades-old popular perception, Republicans favor spending on the military or "guns," while Democrats prefer spending on civilian programs or "butter." But Pete Sepp, vice president of communications for the National Taxpayers Union, told Cybercast News Service that the Republican spending philosophy in Congress "can be summed up in two words: guns and butter, with butter getting an even bigger share."

The Republicans are engaged in a "spending spree," according to Sepp, having adopted the practices of the Democratic Congress they ousted in 1994.

The 1994 Republican landslide was fueled by then-U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America," the 10-point GOP agenda that included a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. Even though the amendment never passed, the proposal solidified the idea that Republicans were more fiscally prudent.

However, Sepp says Republican leaders no longer feel the same way. "Many Appropriations Committee posts went to senior GOP lawmakers who had spent years playing the compromise game with their Democratic colleagues -- which only perpetuated the 'everyone gets a slice of the pie' mentality."

The change in GOP spending, Sepp added, "had to do with the trappings of incumbency.

"Some Republicans in Congress felt like they had been so deeply frozen out of power that they would do anything to keep it, even though the popular base of support that gave them control of Congress wanted to see real changes in Washington's spending habits," Sepp said.

Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), another conservative group that has frequently sided with Republicans, notes on its website that "Congress continues to live in its own unreal world, believing there are no consequences to a steady diet of pork fat.

"Our elected officials have let themselves go whole hog while letting down every hard-working American taxpayer," according to the CAGW web statement.

The federal government had 1,318 pork projects totaling $7.8 billion in 1994, but by 2005, that number had mushroomed to 13,997 projects costing $27.3 billion, CAGW figures show.

Tom Schatz, who heads CAGW, applauded President Bush for his proposal last year to eliminate 65 programs and reduce spending in 63 others, but he noted that Congress ended up abolishing only four programs and cutting spending in 20 others.

"Congress needs to reconsider its dismissive attitude toward the president's budget cuts," Schatz said. "With the federal deficit edging back toward record levels, the president's cuts could help offset hurricane recovery without adding to the enormous debt burden being left to future generations."

During a White House press conference on Tuesday, President Bush again called on Congress to cut spending, this time to help pay for as much hurricane relief as possible.

"I'll work with members of Congress to identify offsets, to free up money for the reconstruction efforts," Bush said. "I will ask them to make even deeper reductions in the mandatory spending programs than are already planned. As Congress completes action on the 2006 appropriations bills, I call on members to make real cuts in non-security spending."

The Concord Coalition, a bipartisan group founded by a deficit hawk -- Republican U.S. Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire - believes the policies of Bush and the congressional leadership represent a "very undisciplined fiscal policy."

"I think where the conservatives fall short is that they won't put revenues on the table," said Robert Bixby, the coalition's executive director. "It's unrealistic to think that we can continue to cut taxes and fund all these new initiatives, and yet, that seems to be where the White House and the congressional leadership are headed."

Bixby pointed to what he said were the benefits of divided government in Washington in the 1990s, when "pay-as-you-go" budget rules and spending caps were enacted.

"My belief is that the Republican Congress and the Democratic president helped check each other and kept the deficit under control. We actually had a surplus for a couple of years" as the Clinton administration came to a close, Bixby said.

"That led to a push for a big tax cut, and after 9/11, the purse strings opened up," he added. "Then the budget rules and caps expired. That 'perfect storm' of events swept away any feeling of fiscal restraint in Washington, and having been sprung from the lock box, the politicians have not been inclined to get back into it."

Budget offsets should include canceling part of the latest highway spending deal or slowing down the implementation of the Medicare prescription drug benefit, Sepp said, adding that Democrats do not appear to pose a viable alternative to the GOP's spending habits. "Democrats have proposed few options for reducing federal spending, especially in the vital area of entitlements," according to Sepp.

"I also think the absolute, concrete lesson from this spending spree is that institutional mechanisms matter," he noted. "Budget process reforms and constitutional requirements for a balanced budget and 'super majorities' for tax hikes may not sound sexy, but they are absolutely vital for encouraging those who talk a good game about limited government to actually follow their words with deeds," Sepp added.

If the GOP fails to take action to resolve the current budget situation, Bixby said the party could be penalized in the mid-term congressional elections next year and in the presidential election of 2008.

"People tend to get mad about deficits when they're mad about other things as well," Bixby said. "So if people are feeling edgy about the economy, if people are feeling edgy about the war and edgy about the price of gasoline, the fact that the government is $400 billion in deficit and running an $8 trillion debt will become more of an issue because it reinforces the impression people have that the government is not managing things very well."

See Earlier Story:
Republican 'Porkers' Urged to Stop Spending (Sept. 26, 2005)

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