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This week, President Bush will sign into law a $397.5 billion omnibus appropriations conference bill that, when combined with the defense and military construction appropriations that were agreed on last year, will increase federal discretionary spending 7.8 percent over 2002 outlays. When the bill is enacted, it will cap a two-year spending spree in which the federal budget grew by 22 percent. Astonishingly, the only time the federal budget grew larger – 24.5 percent – was between 1976-1978 when Democrats controlled both the Congress and the presidency.
Certainly the costs of the war on terrorism factors into the equation; however, closer scrutiny of federal outlays indicates that the amount of dollars the federal government is spending on unnecessary pork and pet projects is implacably rising. The non-profit organization Citizens Against Government Waste pegged pork spending in the 2003 omnibus conference bill at $30 billion; in 2002, it was $20 billion.
Taxpayers beware: more pork is certainly on the way. After the president signs the conference report, legislators will – if they have not already – begin working on a supplemental appropriations bill that will fund the probable war on Iraq and all of its projects and programs. Undoubtedly, some of the projects that were cut from the omnibus bill will be revived.
The rate at which billions of taxpayers’ dollars are appropriated is truly astonishing. The fact that Republicans are in control of Congress and the presidency makes matters worse. Just because we’re in a state of war doesn’t mean that fiscal discipline should be thrown out with the bath water.
Two things were truly objectionable during the entire procedure to pass the conference bill through both chambers – both of which belie the Republican dogma of fiscal discipline. First is the shear amount of pork projects that Republicans countenanced. Secondly, the decision by House leaders to waive the procedure that allows legislators three days to inspect a spending package’s content – in this case, legislators would have had to trawl through a massive 3,000 page, 30 pound document – is extremely worrisome.
Political factors (getting started on the 2004 budget so that the next tax cut has a chance of surviving under reconciliation) may have necessitated putting the omnibus process on the fast track; but allowing pork to infest the omnibus as it did and not allowing true fiscal conservatives to call attention to these projects, completely undermine the Republican agenda of reducing the size and scope of government.
Taxpayers should be furious at Congress for appropriating funds for objectionable projects. These include: $1 million for the Iowa Historical Society; $1 million for bear DNA sampling in Montana; $405,000 to the Staten Island Soccer League of New York for facilities construction; and $725,000 for the “Please Touch” museum in Philadelphia. The Baseball and Cowgirl halls of fame both received $750,000 and $90,000 respectively. Sure, these are small peanuts, but along with funding requests that perennially cost taxpayers billions (AMTRAK), they all add up nonetheless.
Of note, throughout the entire appropriations process, Republican leaders were continually trying to figure out a way to keep spending levels below the president’s request. To do this they arranged for numerous across-the-board spending cuts in the omnibus bill. In the end they decided for an across-the-board cut of about 0.6 percent. In other words, spending for all programs was cut to make room for beefed up funding requests on additional projects. Instead of cutting the $30 billion of pork, they decided to cut everything so that the pork would stay in the final version of the bill. Amazing.
One would expect that discretionary funding would be controlled and pork projects completely eliminated when a $400 billion prescription drug program advanced by the president is on the table, and the price tag for the probable war in Iraq and its subsequent occupation and reconstruction is in the hundreds of billions of dollars. But it is becoming increasingly evident that the federal government has belatedly taken a page from the states and decided that spending constraints do not matter.