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Closed Doors and Closed Minds: The 108th Congress's Missed Opportunities to Cut Federal Spending
NTUF Policy Paper No. 156 -- VoteTally Report 108-2
September 1, 2005
Squeezed in among the personal attacks, the 527 advertisements, and the convention hall balloon drops of last year was something the American public doesn't often see in a Presidential election – candidates making more than a few passing references to budget and tax issues. For example, President Bush's election year budget for Fiscal Year 2005 was said to have been "built on the sensible premise that government spending should grow no faster than the average increase in American family incomes of approximately 4 percent." After promising billions in new spending, the Democratic challenger John Kerry reversed course and argued for spending restraint saying, "So when I say a cap on spending, I mean it. We will have to make real choices – and that includes priorities of my own." On the campaign trail, the candidates frequently traded barbs over whose economic plan would cut the budget deficit the quickest and generate economic growth. Amidst this "get tough" on the budget rhetoric, taxpayers could be forgiven for hoping that after sizeable increases in entitlement, education, and "emergency" spending during 2003, such a prominent discussion of fiscal issues might help to restore a bit of fiscal sanity to Washington and the federal budget.
Given the maxim that "all politics is local," perhaps it was naive to believe that the debate over fiscal policy at the top of the ticket would affect campaigns further down the ballot – or for that matter, dramatically alter the behavior of those running for re-election. It certainly would have been unexpected if lawmakers decided to cut spending in an election year – a time when Members generally shower the voters back home with federally-funded largess in an attempt to demonstrate their seniority and power in Congress. Yet, the interest in fiscal responsibility shown by the Presidential candidates gave Congress a measure of political cover to cut spending and put the country back on the path to fiscal stability, if there had only been a willingness to do so. Unfortunately for taxpayers, Congress wasted an important opportunity to address an ever-expanding federal government. Instead, Congress did what Congress does best: vote to spend more of the public's money. It is impossible to predict when events will again provide Lawmakers with the chance to confront their desire for more spending.
This study was developed using NTUF's VoteTally computer accounting software, which tallies the spending at stake in the votes cast by each Member of Congress under accounting rules designed to ensure that no spending increases or decreases are double‑counted. The data includes 315 House votes and 344 Senate votes from the 108th Congress that would raise or lower federal spending by at least $1 million. The VoteTally methodology is designed to reflect the net budget pressure that each Member of Congress generates through floor votes and through the Member's acquiescence to the "automatic" growth of entitlement spending.
I. Methodology Overview
For a more thorough discussion of the VoteTally methodology, please see Appendix C.
This study uses 315 House votes and 344 Senate votes cast during the 108th Congress. Several Members have been excluded from the data set used for analysis due to resignation, low vote totals, or because they did not serve the entire Congress. Appendix A lists Members alphabetically and Appendix B lists Members by state delegation.
A. Data Highlights
B. Missed Opportunities
Taxpayers might have hoped that the rhetoric of the Presidential campaign would inspire Congress to rally around a pro-taxpayer agenda that contained spending cuts and deficit reduction programs. To do so, however, would have required Members to make a rather abrupt about-face. After all, this was the Congress that passed a multi-billion dollar Medicare prescription drug bill in addition to a number of pork-laden appropriations bills in 2003. And while Members had options to reduce spending during 2004, they instead chose the opposite path. As the Foundation noted in its final BillTally report for the 108th Congress, "NTUF analysts identified 1,343 House and 1,040 Senate measures to increase spending. This is the highest number of spending bills introduced in a Congress since the advent of the BillTally tracking program." There were just 63 bills to cut spending introduced in the House. Only 35 were sponsored in the Senate. If Members had brought just one of the largest spending cut bills to the floor for a vote, their net spending agendas could have fallen anywhere from $8.0 to $36.5 billion in the House and by $900 million to $36.5 billion in the Senate. Again, Congress seems to have missed an opportunity to curtail spending and restore some sense of fiscal responsibility to the federal budget. Table 1 highlights the five largest spending cut bills in each chamber.
Rather than using the bills contained in Table 1, below, to cut spending, Congressional leaders brought "must-pass" appropriations bills that increased outlays (and that were laden with special interest earmarks) to the floor for a vote. Members were also confronted with emergency supplementals that failed to contain spending offsets. In addition, party leaders decided to expand Medicare by passing a prescription drug plan that will cost hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade. Congressman Jeff Flake (R-AZ) expressed the frustration of some rank-and-file Members who were looking to cut spending during the debate on the prescription drug bill when he said, "I hope that my opposition to this bill does not imply my support for the Democratic alternative. While we Republicans are surely headed off the fiscal cliff, the Democrats' plan would only get us there much faster." The decision by the Congressional leadership not to allow votes on spending cut bills forced Members to try and cut spending through floor amendments – a much more difficult process.
During the 1st Session of the 108th Congress, the House considered 16 floor amendments that represented $13.8 billion in potential savings. The bulk of the cuts came from reductions in funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Senate voted on six amendments totaling $40.3 billion in cuts. Each chamber would subsequently adopt a single spending cut amendment. The House passed an amendment to cut the U.S. contribution to the U.N. population fund by $25 million, and the Senate agreed to language that converted a portion of Iraqi reconstruction funding from a grant to a loan.
Unfortunately for taxpayers, the passage of these amendments was an anomaly and did not represent the beginning of a cost-cutting trend. In 2004, the House again debated 16 spending cuts, the total dollar value of which slid to $8.0 billion. The House did pass three of the amendments for $16 million in savings. The Senate considered just one spending cut worth $1.1 billion. Tables 2 and 3 detail the spending cuts that were considered in each chamber.
Given Congress's failure to seize these spending cut opportunities, it is not surprising that spending agendas have skyrocketed in the last few years and that no Member of Congress has been able to achieve a voting agenda that would reduce discretionary outlays. Chart 1 shows a steep decline in the number of Members whose votes would cut spending.
During the 105th Congress, the average Representative voted for $61.0 billion in new spending and supported $40.2 billion in spending cuts, for a net spending agenda of $20.8 billion. In contrast, the average Member of the House in the 108th Congress voted for $394.2 billion in new spending, 546 percent more than in the 105th, while support for spending cuts fell nearly 82 percent to $7.3 billion. Table 4 shows the steady move away from spending cuts in the House over the past eight years.
The House is not alone in its ever-increasing desire for more spending. The average Senator voted for $79.7 billion in new spending during the 105th Congress. That figure ballooned to $485.3 billion, an increase of 509 percent, during the 108th Congress. Again, the dearth of spending cuts has led net agendas to increase substantially in the Senate – albeit at a slower rate than in the House. In this past Congress, the average Senator's net discretionary total was $471.0 billion, an increase of 873 percent versus the 105th Congress. The average Senate agenda was $256.9 billion in the 107th Congress, an increase of 83 percent compared to the 105th. Table 5 details changes in the Senate over the past four Congresses.
Tables 6 and 7 show that a bipartisan consensus to spend now exists in both chambers. Significant differences only seemed to appear among Senate Democrats and Republicans. Yet, even in this case, the "low" party's average nearly hit half a trillion dollars.
C. The Demise of Budget Reform
The lack of spending restraint and budgetary discipline in the 1st Session of the 108th Congress led to an impasse between the House and Senate during the 2nd Session. Although the budget resolution is non-binding, a reconciled budget that has passed both chambers reduces the number of procedural obstacles for subsequent spending and tax bills. The reconciliation process is extremely useful when legislation is brought before the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to waive various budgetary rules to extend tax cuts.
Motivated by the impasse, a handful of Republicans in the House led an effort to reform the budget process. House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle (R-IA) brought H.R. 4663, the Spending Control Act of 2004, to the House floor for debate. The bill proposed to:
Not surprisingly, the bill was defeated. The vote was 146 in favor and 268 opposed. The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board commented on the outcome of the debate by writing: "Once upon a time, in a Congress far, far away, Republicans believed in smaller government. But you sure wouldn't know it from last Friday's budget-reform fiasco on the House floor."
While the legislation failed to gain any support from Democrats, it did not fare well among Republicans either. The ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee John M. Spratt, Jr. of South Carolina even took time to ridicule Republicans saying, "Our Republican friends control the House, they control the Senate, they control the White House. Why can't they control spending?" The dismay expressed by the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board is explained by the 72 Republican votes against the measure – including almost every Republican member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Of the 35 Republican Appropriations Committee members present for the vote, only three backed the measure. The defeat of the bill provides some insight into just how difficult it is to advance a pro-taxpayer, anti-spending agenda in Congress.
D. Not Missing a Rhetorical Beat
Even though the budgetary rhetoric of the Presidential campaign could have been used as political cover to cut spending or reform the budget process in 2004, Congress decided against exercising the spending cut options that were available. This did not, however, preclude Members from taking the floor and lamenting the lack of fiscal responsibility in Washington. Table 8 contains the results of an electronic search of the Congressional Record that shows Members raised the din of their oratory even as they voted for more spending and rejected spending cut amendments. Since net spending increased, on average, by 101 percent in the House and by 83 percent in the Senate from the 107th Congress, it is reasonable to conclude that these frequent calls for budgetary austerity fell on deaf ears.
E. Opportunities for the Future
Many of Washington's newest deficit hawks argue that tax cuts have wiped out projected budget surpluses and put a stranglehold on revenues. They see the opportunity to repeal the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 as the way to restore fiscal responsibility and increase spending on essential government programs. These economically beneficial tax cuts remain vulnerable to repeal because of increased spending.
The current deficits, if not corrected quickly, will mean higher taxes on Americans than would have otherwise been the case, and the deficits will prevent Congress from dealing with the nation's looming entitlement crisis. As Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute told The Wall Street Journal, "If you want the efficiency of smaller government, you have to have smaller expenditures and smaller taxes at the same time." By failing to bring down expenditures, the President and Congress are putting taxpayers on the road to higher taxes and lower economic growth in the future. Congressman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) has observed correctly that, "The deficit is a symptom; spending is the disease. And we have to do something about the disease."
In 1997, Congress achieved a measure of budgetary savings by slowing the growth of Medicare and Medicaid. In 2003, Members dramatically expanded Medicare spending by adding a prescription drug benefit to the program. Now, in the 109th Congress, efforts are again under-way to bring entitlement spending back under control. The FY 2006 budget resolution intends to slow the growth of mandatory programs from 5.7 percent to 5.6 percent over the next five years.
While this represents a first step toward restraining spending, policymakers may be forced to consider additional options as well. Adopting the budget process reforms contained in H.R. 4663 would help establish a viable framework for reducing the deficit and preserving tax cuts. Then fiscal conservatives – veterans as well as newcomers – could press for the passage of Constitutional amendments that require a balanced budget and that limit the ability of Congress to raise taxes without a "super-majority" roll call vote. Finally, Congress could pass fundamental tax reform that moves the U.S. from an income-based tax system to a consumption-based tax system. If taxpayers can see – and feel – the burden of government, it will be far easier to permanently control the growth in government spending and provide a platform for long-term economic growth.
When Members of Congress had the opportunity to increase spending in 2003, they took it. When Members of Congress had the opportunity to reform the budget process and cut spending in 2004, they passed and wasted the political cover offered by the Presidential election. Taxpayers are left with the hope that Congress will realize the need for true fiscal reform and adopt a pro-taxpayer agenda. If not, the 109th Congress may turn out to be yet another missed opportunity.
 White House press release, "OMB Director Discusses 2005 Budget," http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2004/02/20040202-4.html, February 2, 2004.
 John Kerry, "A Return to Fiscal Responsibility," presented at Georgetown University, April 7, 2004.
 This includes votes on H.J. Res. 2, the fiscal year 2003 Omnibus Appropriations bill. Even though the bill completed the funding cycle that began in October 1, 2003, passage of the bill did not occur until 2004 and is therefore included with the other roll call and voice votes from that period.
 Members excluded from the data set are House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL); Representatives Frank Ballance (D-NC), Doug Bereuter (R-NE), G. K. Butterfield (D-NC), A. B. "Ben" Chandler (D-KY), Larry Combest (R-TX), Ernie Fletcher (R-KY), Richard Gephardt (D-MO), Porter Goss (R-FL), Stephanie Herseth (D-SD), William Janklow (R-SD), and Randy Neugebauer (R-TX); and, Senators John Edwards (D-NC) and John Kerry (D-MA). Additionally, Congressman Ralph Hall of Texas who was elected to the 108th Congress as a Democrat and who switched parties in early 2004 is counted as a Republican for this report. Congressman Rodney Alexander from Louisiana is counted as a Democrat even though he switched his party registration to Republican in August 2004.
 Demian Brady, The 108th Congress: Rising Floodwaters or a Change in the Tide?, National Taxpayers Union Foundation Policy Paper 155, May 5, 2005, p. 3.
 Jeff Flake, Congressional Record, p. H5800, June 24, 2003, available online at http://thomas.loc.gov.
 See House roll call vote 2004-318.
 "Lost GOP Souls," The Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2004, p. A8.
 Andrew Taylor, "House Soundly Defeats Conservatives' Bid to Impose New Curbs on Spending," CQ Today, CQ.com, June 25, 2004.
 David Wessel, "Bush, Kerry Are Far Apart on How Raising Taxes on 'Rich' Pans Out," The Wall Street Journal, p. A2, August 5, 2004.
 Jonathan Weisman, "Budget Impasse Reflects GOP Schism," The Washington Post, p. A8, June 30, 2004.