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The 109th Congress's Spending Votes: A "Victory" in Name Only
NTUF Policy Paper No. 159
June 22, 2006
When the Medicare prescription drug plan was adopted during the 108th Congress, fiscal conservatives were deeply troubled. The fact that so many Republicans actively championed the largest expansion of the federal welfare state in decades was even more disturbing to those who espoused limited government. There was a hope that Republicans who control the House and Senate would re-commit to their party's stated principle of budgetary restraint in the 109th Congress. Yet, for taxpayers who shared such a sentiment, this Congress's fiscal record has been suspect at best – despite claims to the contrary from some in positions of leadership.
Each major piece of legislation that the Congress debated during 2005 seemed designed to aggravate, rather than soothe, taxpayers' anxieties. First, Congress refused to offset the "emergency" spending contained in the war and tsunami supplemental, despite pressure from fiscal conservatives. Then, Congress passed a bloated, wasteful energy bill. After that, Congress passed a pork-filled highway bill that exceeded the spending threshold established by President Bush (and should have led to his veto). Instead, the President was comfortable signing the bill because Congress used a budgetary gimmick to rescind $8.5 billion in budget authority on the day before the legislation expired in 2009. In addition to this false economy, taxpayers lamented the earmarks and wasteful spending, but to no avail. Later, Congress passed two supplemental spending bills in response to Hurricane Katrina and again refused to offset the cost of the legislation.
It was against this backdrop that then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay decided to trumpet the Republicans' record of fiscal responsibility. DeLay told The Washington Times that Republicans had been so successful in cutting spending that they had achieved an "ongoing victory." DeLay even suggested that further spending cuts were not possible, saying, "My answer to those that want to offset the spending is sure, bring me the offsets, I'll be glad to do it. But nobody has been able to come up with any yet." Whether DeLay was intending to be glib or not, his comments outraged fiscal conservatives whose anger boiled over at the ever increasing number of earmarks and out of control spending. Their dissatisfaction has yet to subside during the current session of this Congress even though DeLay has announced his retirement.
The following discussion is not intended to be a personal attack on Tom DeLay. Even with all of the power and influence of the Majority Leader's post, DeLay could not pass legislation by himself. The 534 other Members of Congress and the President all played roles in determining how much the federal government would spend. Rather, DeLay's comments provide a loose framework that we can use to determine whether taxpayers should be satisfied with their "victory" or whether much more work remains to be done.
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 125 House votes and 99 Senate votes from the 1st Session of 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 uses 125 House votes and 99 Senate votes cast during the 1st Session of the 109th Congress. Several Members have been excluded 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. The Rhetoric
Rhetoricians might argue that DeLay's comments were intended to create or shape a reality rather than reflect one. Regardless of his intent, an electronic search of the Congressional Record shows that the former Majority Leader was not alone in discussing fiscal policy. Table 1 highlights the rhetorical record of the last three opening sessions. Whether critics of the nation's current fiscal path have sharpened their attacks or whether supporters have attempted mollify fiscal conservatives (or perhaps both) it is clear that Members have increasingly used words rather than deeds in their sparring over the federal budget.
C. The Reality
It's one thing to declare victory. It's quite another to achieve it. Did the 109th Congress succeed in curtailing the growth of the federal government, despite suggestions to the contrary? DeLay told The Times "after 11 years of Republican majority we've pared [the federal government] down pretty good." Were DeLay's comments just empty boasting or did he succeed without anyone else noticing?
The Foundation analyzed 125 House votes and 99 Senate votes cast during the 1st Session of the 109th Congress that could increase or decrease federal spending by $1 million or more on an annual basis. Mr. DeLay might be surprised to find that the average House Member supported $182.2 billion in new discretionary spending increases, while "paring" only $9.3 billion from discretionary programs. This left the average Member of the House with a net voting agenda of $172.9 billion – again, this is new, additional spending. If Republicans were cutting the federal government down to size during the 109th Congress, they were not doing it through the amendment process.
During the 1st Session of the 107th Congress, the House of Representatives voted on 13 spending cut amendments totaling $9.3 billion in estimated savings. The number and value of spending cuts increased during 108th Congress, as the House voted on 16 spending cut amendments worth an estimated $13.8 billion in annual savings. However, this trend, which many taxpayers would view positively, did not carry over to the 109th Congress. During the 1st Session of this Congress, the House considered 12 amendments that would cut spending by $1 million or more on an annual basis. While the number of votes is not significantly different from the last two Congresses, the dollar value of the cuts certainly is. The 12 spending cuts that the House voted on totaled just $3.7 billion, with the largest being a 1 percent reduction in the Labor-HHS appropriations bill. While the House was able to pass one cut in 2003, it was unable to pass any of the 12 amendments in 2005. Table 2 contains the measures considered by the House.
Perhaps Mr. DeLay was thinking of the Senate, where lawmakers voted on four amendments worth $1.3 billion in savings and were able to pass three of them – including an amendment to forgo their cost of living adjustment, something that the House was not willing to do. Table 3 provides data on the Senate's spending cut amendments.
Despite these numbers, DeLay can take some solace on three fronts. First, as Table 4 shows, the average House Member supported a lower level of spending increases in the 109th Congress ($172.9 billion) when compared to the 108th Congress ($231.7 billion), a drop of 21.4 percent. Support for spending cuts nearly doubled over the same period ($9 billion during the 1st Session of this Congress, up from $5.5 billion during the last Congress). To be clear, these numbers do not show an absolute reduction in spending. Instead, they represent a chamber that voted only to increase spending more slowly than it had in the past, while voting to cut a little more than it did previously. Net agenda averages that would actually reverse overall spending have not been seen in Congress for eight years.
Second, House Republicans had a lower net discretionary spending agenda than did House Democrats ($168.3 billion compared to $178.1 billion) even though Republicans supported $0.7 billion more in raw increases than did their opponents across the aisle. As a whole, however, Republicans were more than four times as likely to support spending cuts ($14.2 billion versus $3.7 billion). Table 3 shows that during the 105th Congress both parties supported more in spending cuts than they did in increases, leading to negative net spending agendas. Since the 106th Congress, however, the spending-vote patterns for both parties have changed significantly. The Democrat's net spending agenda is up 275.8 percent from that period, while the Republican agenda is up 283.3 percent. Table 5 contains a comparison of spending averages by party.
Third, while DeLay can take comfort in the fact that the House remains the more fiscally conservative chamber, this is only true in relative rather than absolute terms. The average Senator voted for $202.9 billion in new spending during the first year of the current Congress. Senators, on average, voted for $4.7 billion in spending cuts. Thus, the average Senatorial net spending agenda for the 1st Session of the 109th Congress is 14 percent larger than that of the average Representative, even though lawmakers in both chambers still voted to boost the budget.
As in the House, the average net spending agenda in the Senate is lower than that of the 108th Congress. And, just as in the House, Senators did not finish the session with a negative net spending agenda, but only managed to increase spending more slowly than the previous Congress. The average Senator's net spending total is nearly 5,000 percent above of that of the 105th Congress and 205 percent larger than that of the 106th Congress. Table 6 contains data on Senate averages over time.
Perhaps of less interest to DeLay is that Republicans in the Senate, on average, had lower net spending agendas than did their Democratic counterparts ($190.4 billion compared to $218.3 billion, respectively). Even so, Members of both parties pursued vastly smaller agendas for the 105th Congress ($3.7 billion for Democrats and $4.0 billion for Republicans) than for this Congress. Table 7 contains 1st Session averages by party.
Averages in both the House and Senate would have been lower, and DeLay's comments might have generated less press, had Congress eliminated low-priority programs to offset the spending associated with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the hurricane response bills. To determine the fiscal impact of these items, NTUF created a database that excluded votes on several pieces of legislation that dealt with funding the global war on terrorism or hurricane cleanup. If the entire cost of these bills had been offset, the average Representative's net voting agenda would have dropped nearly 20 percent from $172.9 billion to $139.3 billion. The average Senator's net spending agenda would have declined from $198.2 billion to $158.2 billion (nearly 25 percent). The excluded bills and their average annual costs are contained in Table 8.
With the failure to offset these spending provisions, it's not surprising that net spending agendas in both chambers remained substantial. The 1st Session of the 109th Congress is the fifth such instance in a row where no Member of Congress was able to offset all of his or her proposed spending increases with spending cuts. Chart 1 shows a steep decline in the number of Members over the past ten years whose votes would reduce overall discretionary spending, from 512 in 1996 to zero in 2001. Taxpayers will have to wait until the end of the 2nd Session to see if the firestorm surrounding DeLay's comments will cause Congress to recover from this precipitous fall.
D. Where to Pare?
In 2005, lawmakers turned to a familiar target when it attempted to pare spending: entitlements. The 104th Congress passed welfare reform. The 105th Congress passed the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, which slowed the rate of growth in Medicare and other federal entitlements. The 109th Congress passed the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bulk of the expected $35 billion reduction in budget authority over the next 10 years is derived from changes to:
Since the 105th Congress, NTUF has observed the inability of Congress to either control discretionary spending or to reform rather than tweak mandatory programs. An easy target for paring should be personally directed spending or "earmarks" inserted into legislation by Members of Congress. The number of earmarks has risen dramatically since 1995 when Members stuffed just 1,400 requests into the budget. Now, there are more than 14,000. Yet, DeLay even justified these parochial requests by saying, "We are an equal branch of government – why should we let a bureaucrat decide?"
Rather than excusing Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere," federally-funded parking garages for an art museum in Omaha, and other questionable projects, Congress should be working to eliminate earmarks. Then it can turn its attention to overhauling America's creaking entitlement system.
Pundits continue to debate whether or not the departure of Tom DeLay from Congress will help to reduce the high level of partisanship that permeates Capitol Hill. It is unlikely, however, that one person's exit will dramatically change how Congress addresses fiscal policy. Over the past decade, Members of Congress have continued to vote for more and more discretionary spending, while occasionally voting to slow the growth of entitlement programs – without making the necessary reforms to keep them from overwhelming taxpayers in the future. Congress as a whole remains thoroughly addicted to pork barrel spending. Until there is Presidential leadership from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and threatened vetoes become real, Congress will continue to wrap itself in its own rhetorical shroud – one that cannot conceal the hollow "victory" over bigger government that some lawmakers claim to have won.
 Amy Fagan and Stephen Dinan, "DeLay Declares 'Victory' in War on Budget Fat," The Washington Times, September 14, 2005, http://www.washtimes.com/national/20050914-120153-3878r.htm.
 Members excluded from the data set are House Speaker Dennis Hastert (IL); Representatives John Campbell (CA), Christopher Cox (CA), Robert Matsui (CA), Rob Portman (OH), Jean Schmidt (OH); and, Senator Jon Corzine (NJ).
 Amy Fagan and Stephen Dinan, "DeLay Declares 'Victory' in War on Budget Fat."
 The Congressional Budget Office, S. 1932, Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (Cost Estimate), January 27, 2006.
 George Will, "Checking out the Landscape," TownHall.com, January 26, 2006, http://www.townhall.com/opinion/columns/georgewill/2006/01/26/183881.html.
 "Federal Funds for Pet Projects Under Assault in U.S. Congress," Bloomberg.com, February 8, 2006, http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=10000103&sid=a0GVR8OLet8k&refer=us.
 George Will, "Checking out the Landscape."