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The First Session of the 110th Congress: Moving in Place or Forever Behind?
NTUF Policy Paper 165 -- BillTally Report 110-2
July 22, 2008
By Demian Brady
There is a classic Greek paradox used by the philosopher Zeno to argue that motion is impossible because before a body could reach an ultimate destination, it first must get halfway to that point. Before the halfway point is reached, a body would first have to get to one-quarter of the distance, and so on and so on. If motion were actually made with this degree of incrementalism, nobody would get anywhere! Given recent budgetary trends and legislative behavior, taxpayers may be led to think that in regard to movement toward a fiscally disciplined balanced budget, Congress is bringing Zeno's famous paradox to life: Steps with one foot down the path to budget savings are tripped up by strides in the opposite direction. Still, 13 years ago, Congress approved a budget that actually decreased discretionary spending from the previous year, so we have evidence that fiscal discipline is possible. While there are some signs that more lawmakers in the 110th Congress are seeking out ways to trim expenditures, these steps have been halting and erratic – the majority of Congressional Members sponsor a mix of legislation that would, on net, result in new spending, thereby increasing the strain on the budget and the burden on taxpayers.
This report summarizes data from NTUF's BillTally accounting software, which since 1991 has examined nearly every piece of legislation introduced in Congress in order to identify those with a cost or savings that affects annual federal spending by at least $1 million. Agenda totals for individual lawmakers are derived by cross-indexing their sponsorship and cosponsorship records with cost estimates for 1,128 House bills and 770 Senate bills under BillTally accounting rules that prevent the double counting of overlapping proposals. All sponsorship and cost data in this report were reviewed confidentially by each Congressional office prior to publication. Appendix A lists all Members alphabetically with the number of spending and saving bills they introduced; Appendix B lists Members by state delegation; and, Appendix C gives a thorough explanation of the BillTally methodology.
I. Data Highlights
II. Analysis of Findings
A. The Challenges Ahead
There are few who would dispute that the long-term health of the budget is imperiled by America's looming entitlement crisis: The federal government will have to come up with $53 trillion over the next 75 years to cover the costs of promises to beneficiaries of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. There is widespread agreement on the political left and right that this presents enormous fiscal challenges to the federal government, and hence, to taxpayers. But one of the chief obstacles to reform is the lack of consensus as to how best to resolve this problem. In fact, the most discernable "consensus" uncovered in this report has a negative impact on the entitlement problem: A majority of Congressional Members are proposing net spending increases.
The challenges facing the budget are well-known, but a few points are worth rehashing, both for emphasis and context.
A recent report published jointly by the Department of the Treasury, the Office of Management and Budget, and the General Accountability Office succinctly summed up the problem: The government is on an unsustainable fiscal path.
B. The Effect on Congress
Despite the finding described above, the latest BillTally data indicates that the impending fiscal crunch and concerns over current deficit spending are having at least some impact on most legislators' sponsorship behavior. So far during the 110th Congress, Members have been more actively drafting bills to reduce spending. But this does not necessarily mean that the tide of red ink in the budget is receding: Although Representatives and Senators authored more savings bills during the first year of this Congress than in several preceding Congresses, this gain was more than offset by a spike in bills to increase spending.
In fact, the figures in Table 1 (below) show that there were more spending bills introduced in 2007 than in any previous First Session. The number of House spending bills rose by over one-third since the last Congress, while Senate spending bills saw growth of nearly 25 percent. Of the 1,898 bills pertinent to spending that were drafted by the House and Senate, 96 percent (1,823) called for increases, just 75 would enact savings. House Members introduced over 21 bills to increase spending for each piece of legislation crafted to cut back outlays – topping last Congress's ratio of 17 to 1. The ratio of increase to decrease bills dipped slightly in the Senate from 31 to 1 in the 109th Congress to 30 to 1 in the 110th.
Excluding overlapping legislation, if each spending bill in the House became law, outlays would increase by $1.741 trillion. House savings bills would offset 2.7 percent of that spending with a total of $47.8 billion of cuts, for a net budget hike of $1.693 trillion – $14,802 per household. If each bill in the Senate were passed into law, spending would rise by a net of $1.128 trillion. The Senate's savings bills would offset 5.7 percent of the new spending. Senate legislation would cost $9,857 per household.
C. Members' Spending Agendas
1. The Net Results
Given the overall upswing in the number of savings bills introduced, it makes sense that, on average, the typical Member of either party proposed more budget reductions last year than in recent Congresses. Compared to the 109th Congress, the typical House Democrat called for nearly six times as much savings, and Senate Democrats sponsored nearly four times as much. But the volume in cuts was not enough to balance out Members' spending proposals, meaning the difference would be "paid for" through higher taxes and fees or deficit spending.
In the House, the typical Member produced a smaller net agenda than during the 109th Congress, but the rate of reduction varied by party. The average House Democrat backed outlay increases of $548 billion and outlay savings of $971 million, resulting in a net spending agenda that
would boost the budget by $547 billion annually. Because of the greater prevalence of outlay savings mentioned above, last year's net spending agenda receded slightly from the high-water mark reached in the 109th Congress. House Republicans, on average, proposed $13.8 billion in spending and $7 billion in savings, for a net total increase of $6.8 billion – $4.8 billion less than the Republican net agenda in the 109th Congress. This is also the third consecutive Congress in which Republicans proposed a reduced level of net spending.
The trend did not apply across the board in the Senate. Despite Senate Democratic efforts to sponsor an average of $730 million in savings – far more than $190 million worth of cuts proposed in the previous Congress – their average net spending agenda increased to $59.2 billion, $7 billion more than during the 109th Congress. Compared to recent Congresses, the typical Senate Republican promoted fewer increases ($13.1 billion) and more savings ($6.5 billion) for a net spending agenda of $6.5 billion. Like their House colleagues, this was the third consecutive year the net amount declined.
2. Unbalanced Agendas
There was a significant difference between the parties concerning how much of their increases would be offset through outlay savings: The average Republican in either the House or the Senate would offset roughly half of his or her proposed spending hikes. At this point in the 106th Congress, the average Republican more than offset his or her proposals, meaning that if the mix of legislation that was sponsored became law, net spending would have gone down. Over the 107th and 108th Congresses, Republicans called for increasingly higher levels of spending and fewer savings, a trend which has been slowly reversing over the 109th and 110th Congresses.
While it is important not to over-speculate, Table 3 does seem to provide some factual data to support the electoral arc of Republicans, especially with their party's base. The 108th Congress, which produced anger among fiscal conservatives with legislation such as the Medicare prescription drug bill, represented a 12-year high for Republican agenda costs. Those numbers began to decline after Republicans came under mounting criticism over their fiscal discipline. In the current Congress, net totals have further declined, suggesting (initially, at least) that GOP lawmakers in the House took their loss of majority control as a lack of voter faith in their self-professed principles.
The typical Senate Democrat, on the other hand, proposed savings that would offset just over a single percentage point of their proposed hikes. Democrats in the House sponsored, on average, savings that would offset less than one-fifth of a percentage point of the spending hikes proposed, which is actually a greater offset rate than was exhibited during the 109th Congress.
As Table 4 (above) illustrates, one reason for the difference between the parties' average net spending agendas is the tendency of Democrats to sponsor more than twice as many spending bills than their colleagues across the aisle. In the House, Democrats backed an average of 82 spending bills while Republicans supported an average of 31 bills to boost outlays. A total of 69 Representatives (including two Republicans) backed 100 or more spending bills and among these, one Member backed a grand total of 224 bills to increase spending.
In the Senate, Democrats supported 75 increase bills and Republicans sponsored 32. The two Independent Senators outpaced the partisans, averaging 103 spending bills. Twelve Senators backed more than 100 spending bills (including nine Democrats, the two Independents, and one Republican).
It is perhaps surprising that Democrats also sponsored on average more savings bills than Republicans in both the House and Senate. In the House, Democrats backed six and the Republicans backed three, on average. In the Senate, Democrats topped Republicans two to one.
3. The Outliers
Table 5 (below) shows the number of Representatives and Senators with the highest and lowest net spending agendas over the past few Congresses. The number of Representatives with net agendas to reduce spending increased from a low of 13 in the 108th Congress to 55 currently (all of these Members were Republicans) – less than half as many as the 115 Representatives in the 106th with net agendas to reduce spending. The tale is similar in the Senate: In the 107th Congress, there was just a single Senator whose legislation would have led to net savings. This figure has steadily climbed in each subsequent year, and there are now 11 net cutters in the 110th.
The number of legislators with net agendas of at least $100 billion seems to fluctuate from year to year. This year marked an upswing from the previous Congress: 107 Representatives and eight Senators sponsored legislation that would have a net impact of increasing federal spending by at least $100 billion. Among the Representatives, 87 backed a single-payer universal health care bill, pushing their net spending agenda to over $1 trillion. These 87 Members sponsored, on average, 105 spending bills.
D. Congressional Priorities
In the BillTally database, each piece of legislation is categorized into basic subject areas such as education or energy, primarily to make it easier to prevent double counting of similar bills. However, the data can also be used to see which issue areas Members are collectively focusing on.
Table 6 (above) shows the 10 most popular issues dealt with by the legislative output that Members produced. Health care legislation dominated the agenda in the 110th Congress. The 179 health-related House and 145 Senate bills comprised 17 percent of all the introduced bills. Education was the second most popular subject, occupying 10 percent of the legislative workload with 108 House and 80 Senate bills. The other main topics Congress focused on were environment, law enforcement, and veterans, making up 9, 7, and 6 percent of the workload, respectively.
Table 7 (above) breaks down the sponsorship of spending and savings bills by partisan affiliation. This helps to illustrate the policy differences between the Democrats and Republicans for those bills with only Members of one party as sponsors, and areas of agreement where Democrats and Republicans join together in equal numbers to back legislation.
Eight of the 50 total savings bills in the House only had Democratic sponsors. The most popular of these (in terms of number of sponsors) were H.R. 1104, the Foster Children Self-Support Act, and H.R. 1852, the Expanding American Homeownership Act of 2007 – each with 14 sponsors and cosponsors.
Democrats were the sole partisan sponsors of 318 bills to increase spending. The most popular issue area was education (52 bills), health care (37 bills), and the environment (23 bills). The most expensive bills in these categories, and in Congress generally, were proposals to implement universal health care plans. At the top of this pile was H.R. 676, United States National Health Insurance Act, which would create a single-payer system run by the federal government at a cost of over $1 trillion a year once fully implemented.
Republican House Members authored 12 savings bills and 132 increase bills that did not garner any Democratic backers. H.R. 3412, the Davis-Bacon Repeal Act, had the most sponsors, with 36 Republicans. Other Republican-only savings ideas included two bills to implement an across-the-board cut in non-defense, non-homeland security spending of 2 percent (H.R. 374, 17 sponsors) and 5 percent (H.R. 379, 16 sponsors). Also popular was H.R. 1752 (18 sponsors), the Expanding American Homeownership Act of 2007, which would increase offsetting collections to federal housing programs (confusingly, both H.R. 1752 and H.R. 1852 above, bear the same name).[+] Over half of the Republican-only spending bills were concentrated on law enforcement and the judiciary (22 bills) followed by the environment (20 bills).
In the House, Democrats and Republicans found more ways to agree on increasing spending than on trimming the budget. Two of the "bipartisan" savings bills had a single sponsor from each party, a third had two Democrats and Republicans, while H.R. 1371, the Farming Flexibility Act of 2007, had 11 from each party. Democrats and Republicans sponsored 68 spending bills in equal numbers; issues of "bipartisan" agreement were over health care (13 bills), federal land and parks (nine bills), and the environment (eight bills).
E. Freshmen and Returning Members
Do freshmen Congressmen propose to spend less money than their longer-serving colleagues? As Table 9 (below) shows, with the exception of Senate Democrats, they do. On average, first-term Representatives proposed fewer increases than their returning colleagues. Longer-serving House Democrats called for, on average, savings of $1 billion, topping the $831 million in cuts proposed by the typical freshman Democrat ($831 million). Yet they also proposed increases of $588 billion – 57 percent higher than the freshman's average amount of $373.4 billion.
If all of the legislation backed by the typical House Republican freshman became law, spending would actually decrease by a net of $1.5 billion. Returning Republicans backed a mix of legislation that would lead to annual increases of $7.4 billion. The two Republican freshmen Senators on average sponsored a net agenda of $88 million. Tenured Republican Senators were more aggressive than the newcomers in calling for savings ($6.8 billion compared to $290 million for the freshmen), but they also proposed increases greater than the freshmen by over $13 billion.
Senate Democratic freshmen are the exception. On average, newly elected Democrats proposed to increase outlays by $49.9 billion, offset by $481 million in savings, for a net spending agenda of $49.4 billion – $15 billion more than tenured Democrats.
F. House Caucuses
Once elected to Congress, a Representative has the option to join any of several Member caucuses that organize around a particular issue area and/or political philosophy. In these caucuses, Members can share ideas and coordinate strategies to promote or oppose particular legislation. Two such caucuses, the Republican Study Committee (RSC) and the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition (BDC), both espouse fiscal discipline for their respective parties. The RSC states that it is dedicated to "a limited and Constitutional role for the federal government." On its website, the BDC states that one of its top priorities in the 110th Congress "… will be to refocus Congress on balancing the budget and ridding taxpayers of the burden the debt places on them." A related third caucus, the Republican Main Street Partnership (RMSP) highlights a quote from George Washington on its website proclaiming that "… the most important institutional value is fiscal discipline."
The three self-identifying caucuses of "fiscal discipline" produced widely disparate net spending agendas. On the Republican side, members of the RSC called for an average net spending agenda that would reduce spending by $1.1 billion, while those in the Main Street Partnership proposed net budgetary increases of $48.4 billion – seven times higher than the net of the average Republican. Both caucuses would be outspent by the average Blue Dog, who sponsored legislation that would boost spending by $141.6 billion – still, a level nearly five times smaller than the net agenda of other Democrats.
A Congressional group that makes no claim to "fiscal discipline" but instead favors "economic justice" is the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC). The CPC calls for "… a fairer, more humane, and more responsible federal budget plan for FY08 and ensuing years that truly addresses the needs and hopes of all the American people." Representatives in the Progressive Caucus sponsored, on average, 106 spending bills and would impact the budget with a net increase surpassing $1 trillion.
The upswing in the 110th Congress in savings bills and, among many Members, a corresponding gain in the amount of savings proposed, could be an indication that Congress is making some headway toward at least acknowledging that their individually unbalanced agendas are contributing to the collectively unbalanced budgets of the federal government. But given the burgeoning number of spending bills and the potential impact of the looming entitlement crunch, it would be fair to say that these efforts are mere baby steps. And like toddlers often do, those steps can go in many, sometimes contradictory directions.
Another of Zeno's contradictory assertions, found in the famous Achilles paradox, is that a faster-moving hare can never catch a lumbering tortoise because by the time the hare reaches the tortoise's starting point, the tortoise has moved forward again. The hare must then travel to that second starting point, from which the tortoise has already left … and so on, and so on.
Physicists can obviously refute this argument in our everyday world, but Zeno's paradox may yet also be refuted in the world inside the Washington Beltway. The slow but steady tortoise, carrying a modest bundle of spending cuts, has been racing against the fast and furious hare, bearing a massive load of spending hikes. And for the past decade, the hare has beaten the tortoise in federal budget contests. Many taxpayers, however, no doubt remain hopeful that eventually the persistence of the turtle will somehow win out and turn the laws of fiscal locomotion on their head.
Demian S. Brady
Research information was compiled with the assistance of Policy Analysts Brianna Cardiff and Elizabeth Terrell and Associate Policy Analysts Will Collins, Caitlin Kilpatrick, Eli Lavicky, Colin McDonell, Daniel St. John, and Stephen Samouce.
[+] A related bill, H.R. 373, calling for a 1 percent, across-the-board cut in non-defense, non-homeland security spending, had a majority of Republican supporters with one Democratic sponsor.
 For information regarding which types of bills are excluded, or other issues pertaining to the methodology, please see Appendix C.
 This report excludes the following Representatives who either died during the course of the 110th Congress or started late in the Session: Paul Broun (R-GA), Julia Carson (D-IN), Jo Ann Davis (R-VA), Paul Gillmor (R-OH), Robert Latta (R-OH), Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-CA), Charlie Norwood (R-GA), and Robert Wittman (R-VA). Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who as Speaker of the House did not sponsor or cosponsor spending bills, was also excluded. Senator Craig Thomas (R-WY) was also excluded and Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) is included for his service in the House.
 U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2008 (127th Edition) Washington, DC, 2007, No. 58, "Households, Families, Subfamilies, and Married Couples: 1980 to 2006."
 The Republican Main Street Partnership includes Members from both Chambers, as well as officials at the state level. These figures are based only on RMSP Members serving in the House.