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In “The Road Not Taken” poet Robert Frost ponders at a fork in the road and whether or not to choose ’the one less traveled.’ It has always been assumed that this ‘less traveled’ road was the choice for innovators and leaders - for who else would have the temerity to take the road less traveled with all of its pitfalls and potential dangers? Congress now finds itself at a fork in the road. Will they take the more traveled road of more spending and bigger government? Or will they take the less traveled road of fiscal discipline?
As indicated in the title of this week’s Novak column, a budget showdown is in the works. Congress has been spending money without any substantiation of need or even regard to the consequences. When Republicans took over Congress it was with all of the fiscal fervor of the newly converted. Budgets were slashed and Departments were eliminated - at least in several legislative proposals. Agencies were going to have to fight for every dime and justify their needs to the American public that funded them. And then something funny happened. Republicans realized that money helps elections. If you provide federal funding for say veterans - then the veterans like you and say nice things about you and maybe even vote for you. If there are farmers in your district why not vote for a bill that provides them with some subsidies? So what if only $200,000 out of $78 BILLION actually gets to them - that still buys goodwill right? Plus we had a surplus, we can afford to give money to our friends - it’s FREE!
What Republicans failed to realize is that 1) these groups (all of these groups that feed at the public trough) will never, ever in this lifetime have enough money and will always come back for more and 2) once you begin a cycle of higher spending this cycle has to be maintained.
What does this mean in practical terms? Let’s take a look:
Now to the fork in the road. President Bush, after getting a shaky start by signing the egregious farm bill and creating steel quotas has taken two solid steps to enforcing fiscal discipline. First, he kept Congress from engaging in an all out spending spree on the supplemental spending bill. Then he decided not to allow the extra $5 billion in add-ons that they provided despite his admonitions. Both of these positive steps have put the onus for fiscal discipline squarely on the shoulders of Congressional members.
Every year Congress plays the same appropriations game - it passes the smaller bills by taking money from the ever popular Labor, HHS and Education (LHE) appropriations bill and then, in a last minute get-out-the-door spending spree, throws the money back in thereby increasing the overall pot. Fiscal conservatives in the House decided this year not to play that game and demanded that House bring up LHE as one of the first bills. So upon returning from their August recess House leadership is expected to bring up the LHE bill. The problem is that many of the big spenders don’t support the President’s request and House passed budget level for LHE of $130 billion. This despite the fact that $130 billion represents an increase of $6.6 billion from last year. For many of these big spenders it is not enough to double the Dept. of Health and Human Services in five years. We can only hope that those Members concerned with out-of-control spending outnumber the big spenders caucus.
Besides the implications for this individual bill, the vote itself represents an important symbol of the overall commitment to fiscal discipline. If Members of Congress cannot vote for a bill that is funded at the President’s request level and consistent with the amount they approved earlier this year, then you can throw any other attempts of fiscal sanity out the window. The question that Members needs to ask themselves is, “when is enough, enough?”
When members reach that fork I hope they will choose the one less traveled and fight for fiscal restraint - the taxpayers could use a break!
With fiscal deficits looming, a War on Terror continuing and the economy staggering American can no longer afford the luxury of a government that spends our money like drunken sailors. The big spenders in Congress would like you to believe that our current fiscal decline is due to the Bush tax cut and September 11th ignoring of course the obvious effect of runaway spending. The high times are over for the both the federal and state governments and it is time they learned this lesson and get back to acting judiciously with the federal purse. This fall when members reach the important fork I hope they will choose the one less traveled and fight for fiscal restraint - the taxpayers need a break!