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Flashbacks and Backtracks: What the Current Congress Can Learn from Its Spendaholic Predecessor
NTUF Policy Paper No. 161 -- VoteTally Report 109-2
May 2, 2007
I think on a bipartisan basis we owe it to our children and grandchildren to get this Government in order and to be able to actually pay our way.
After years of historic deficits, this 110th Congress will commit itself to a higher standard: pay-as-you-go, no new deficit spending. Our new America will provide unlimited opportunity for future generations, not burden them with mountains of debt.
Republicans won the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994 by highlighting Democratic scandals and by promising to make the federal government more accountable, responsive, and frugal. Fiscal conservatives expected that the "Republican Revolution" would not only terminate programs such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts but also shutter entire cabinet departments. Using the "Contract with America" as their guide, the House Republicans' first budget called for the elimination of more than 200 federal programs as well as the Departments of Education, Energy, and Commerce. Despite the successes of reforming welfare in 1996 and slowing the growth of entitlement spending in 1997, by the end of the decade the party that had come to change Washington was starting to succumb to the trappings of office. Rather than overhaul America's unsustainable entitlement programs, Republicans pushed through a costly expansion of the Medicare program by adding a prescription drug benefit in 2003. Then budgetary gimmicks appeared and subsequently undermined any semblance of spending discipline. Congress stuffed pork barrel projects into supplemental appropriations bills and called its newfound tactic "emergency spending." The Republicans' continued profligacy, and the ethical problems that led to the resignation and criminal conviction of several House Members, provided Democrats with an opening to retake control of Congress.
The Democrats' 2006 campaign platform echoed that of the Republicans in 1994, by calling for an end to corruption, the elimination of special interest earmarks, and a restoration of fiscal discipline to the federal budget. Obviously, the Democrats' views on the latter issue may not mesh with those of fiscal conservatives. The 110th Congress's Budget Resolutions aim to erase federal deficits largely through tax hikes. But will the saying, "Only Nixon could go to China," yet apply to the party that brought about the New Deal and the Great Society, will Democrats be better able to address America's looming entitlement crisis than the party that claims to represent fiscal conservatives? As the two quotations above demonstrate, words are brave things. But what about votes?
This study was developed using NTUF's VoteTally computer accounting software, which identifies the spending at stake in the votes cast by each Member of Congress under rules designed to ensure that no spending increases or decreases are double-counted. The data includes 225 House votes and 158 Senate votes from the 109th 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 includes 225 House votes and 158 Senate votes cast during the 109th Congress. Several Members have been omitted from the data set used for analysis due to resignation, a low vote total, or because they did not serve the entire Session. Appendix A lists Members alphabetically and Appendix B lists Members by state delegation.
A. Data Highlights
B. Who Is More Responsible?
In 1994, Republicans campaigned against a "tax-and-spend" Democratic majority on a platform of making Congress more accountable and less costly to taxpayers. Republicans argued that they could cut taxes, eliminate wasteful government programs, and balance the budget. Twelve years later, Democrats were portraying themselves as the party of fiscal discipline and were lampooning Republicans for runaway spending and a burgeoning national debt. The war of words was fought not only on the campaign trail but also in the halls of Congress as Members trumpeted their tax and budget credentials. Strangely, those trumpets did not blare as often in the 109th Congress, as the table below shows.
This 23 percent decline in the lexicon of fiscal discipline is difficult to explain. After all, Democrats regained control of Congress by presenting themselves – in part – as the party that would enforce budgetary strictures in Washington. Yet, during the 109th Congress both House and Senate Republicans supported smaller spending increases and more spending reductions than did Democrats. In the House, where the average Member backed increases of $305.1 billion and reductions of $15.4 billion, the average Republican supported $301.6 billion in increases and $22.2 billion in cuts. In contrast, the average Democrat voted for $309.0 billion in new spending and $7.9 billion in cuts. However, in the 106th and 107th Congresses, Democrats did have lower net spending agendas, excluding mandatory spending, than did House Republicans ($130.6 billion versus $143.7 billion, and $183.7 billion versus $200.5 billion, respectively). Perhaps the fear of lawmakers in either party to push the issue on the floors of the House and Senate – where, unlike paid advertising, any remark can trigger an immediate rejoinder – was one factor in this pullback for the war of words.
It is interesting to note that the 22 Republican incumbents who were defeated for reelection to the House had net voting agendas that were $2.1 billion higher than members of their party who were returned to the House, albeit in the minority for the 110th Congress ($281.9 billion versus $279.8 billion). Although the differences among the losers' and their GOP colleagues' averages were comparatively small, they do seem to demonstrate that going to bat for a bigger federal budget was of little help to endangered incumbents. At the very least, the figures suggest that there might have been minimal danger in running for reelection on a platform that was more frugal.
Table 2 shows averages for all House Members by Congress, while Table 3 contains data on party averages by Congress.
In the Senate, where near party-line voting is common, Republicans tended to back less new spending than their colleagues across the aisle ($346.8 billion versus $404.3 billion each). Republican Senators also voted to cut more spending than did their Democratic counterparts ($21.0 billion compared to $8.9 billion). However, net voting agendas for both parties are substantially larger than they were in 105th Congress ($40.0 billion for Republicans and $58.7 billion for Democrats) and the 107th Congress ($161.8 billion for Republicans and $299.2 billion for Democrats).
As in the House, the Republican Senators who were defeated for reelection had net voting agendas that were slightly above the average of those who will be serving in the 110th Congress ($329.3 billion compared to $325.3 billion).
While net spending agendas in the Senate for the 109th Congress were below those of the 108th Congress, they have climbed since the 105th Congress, when the average Senator supported just $48.4 billion in new spending.
Table 4 highlights Senate averages since the 105th Congress. Party averages by Congress are contained in Table 5.
Chart 1 shows the rapid decline in support for lower federal expenditures, as the number of spending cutters has fallen to zero from a high of 512 Members in 1996.
Although net voting agendas for the 109th Congress are lower than those of the previous Congress, it is important to realize that this does not reflect an absolute reduction in spending, but rather a lower rate of increase.
C. Voices versus Votes: Did They Mean What They Said?
With Members of Congress proclaiming their commitment to fiscal responsibility on the campaign trail, one might expect those words to translate into action. The reality is somewhat different, however. During the 109th Congress, the House of Representatives voted on 24 spending cut amendments worth approximately $13.3 billion in potential savings. Both the number and value of the reductions were lower than those offered in the 108th Congress, when House Members considered 32 spending cut amendments totaling $21.9 billion. In any case, the House was unable to pass a single one of the amendments contained in Table 6.
During the 109th Congress, Senators voted on seven spending cut amendments, the same number as in the 108th Congress. However, the 109th Senate voted on only $16.0 billion in total reductions, compared to $41.4 billion in the previous Congress. In contrast to the House, the Senate was able to pass three spending reduction amendments during the First Session of the 109th Congress, but did not adopt any during the Second Session. In the end, however, all action proved futile as none of the cuts made it into law.
Tables 6 and 7 detail the spending cuts that were considered in each chamber during the 109th Congress.
The day after any election, political pundits often point out that winning a campaign is one thing and that governing is quite another. When discussing changes in voting patterns captured by the VoteTally system with Republican Congressional staffers during their time in the majority, NTUF personnel were often told that the GOP was responsible for governing and that meant passing legislation. And, as was frequently the case, that legislation was more and more expensive to taxpayers. This situation was not necessarily preordained. Bearing in mind that VoteTally measures only spending changes, Congressional leaders could have attempted to muster majorities on behalf of freezing outlays or restricting their rate of growth more vigorously. Yet, by the end of the 109th Congress, Republicans would have been hard-pressed to list any programs that they had eliminated and had not been resurrected in one form or another over the past 12 years. Instead, the GOP would likely have highlighted the areas where funding had increased – even above what the President had requested. Somewhere along the way, the echoes of the "revolution" faded away.
Now, Democrats must attempt to live up to their campaign promises of spending restraint and earmark reform. With concerns about pork-filled continuing resolutions and emergency spending bills, as well as disagreements over what constitutes an "earmark," Democrats have quite a challenge from without and within during the months to come in the 110th Congress.
 Stephen Moore and Stephen Slivinksi, "The Return of the Living Dead: Federal Programs that Survived the Republican Revolution," Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 375, July 24, 2000.
 Members excluded from the data set are House Speaker Dennis Hastert (IL); Representatives John Campbell (CA), Christopher Cox (CA), Randy "Duke" Cunningham (CA), Tom DeLay (TX), Mark Foley (FL), Doris Matsui (CA), Robert Matsui (CA), Bob Ney (OH), Rob Portman (OH), Jean Schmidt (OH); and, Senator Jon Corzine (NJ). Congressman, and now Senator, Robert Menendez (NJ) is excluded from both the House and Senate calculations.