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Lawmakers Continue Backing Big Budget Bills, but Trend to Spend May Be Slowing, BillTally Study Finds

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(Alexandria, VA) – Did lawmakers take a temporary respite from their decade-long habit of sponsoring more costly legislative agendas, or has the 108th Congress marked a true reversal in proposing ever-higher federal spending? That is the single most important question explored in the latest BillTally study from the non-partisan National Taxpayers Union Foundation (NTUF): even though over 40 percent of House Members and 30 percent of all Senators advocated legislation whose enactment would boost the budget by $100 billion or more, the ratio of spending-hike to spending-cut bills in the 108th Congress declined from the Congress before it.

"Members of the 108th Congress seemed to argue over little more than whether to grow government at warp speed or merely the speed of light, but there were a few signs of hope for taxpayers looking for fiscal discipline," said NTUF Senior Policy Analyst and study author Demian Brady. "The net legislative work product of Congress continues to trend toward higher spending, yet for the first time since the mid-1990s, the tremendous imbalance in favor of bigger budgets has begun a small swing toward a less lopsided legislative output."

BillTally is a unique cost accounting system that computes a "net annual agenda" for each Member of Congress (and has done so since 1991). The results are based on each Senator's or Representative's individual sponsorship or cosponsorship of pending legislation, and provide an in-depth look at the fiscal behavior of lawmakers, free from the influence of committees, party leaders, and rules surrounding floor votes. All cost estimates for bills are obtained from third-party sources or are calculated from neutral data. Within the 108th Congress, NTUF identified 2,481 House and Senate bills with an impact on annual federal spending of plus or minus $1 million. Highlights of the study include:

  • In the House, the typical Representative in either party proposed record-high net spending agendas. The average Republican called for $35.0 billion in net new spending, while the typical Democrat sought $521.0 billion in annual budget increases. Compared to the 107th Congress, these amounts represent rises of 24.7 percent for Democrats and 8.4 percent for Republicans.
  • Meanwhile, Senate Democrats advocated an average net annual spending hike of $157.6 billion, while Republicans sponsored an average of $33.7 billion. Among Democratic Senators, this level constitutes a 4.4 percent jump from the 107th Congress, but for Republicans, the average amounts to a slight decrease (1.5 percent) from the 107th to the 108th.
  • A total of 190 Representatives and 30 Senators proposed legislation that would result in federal outlay increases of greater than $100 billion annually – up from the 97 Representatives and 27 Senators who did so in the 107th Congress. However, the prevalence of lawmakers with net spending-reduction agendas was uneven – nine Representatives and three Senators for the 108th versus 26 Representatives and zero Senators in the 107th.
  • Sorting BillTally data by total, NTUF determined that in the House, Democrats' agendas ranged from $33.6 billion (John Spratt, SC) to $2.0 trillion (Stephanie Tubbs Jones, OH). Among Senate Democrats, Jon Corzine (NJ) posted the largest total, at $440.7 billion, while Russ Feingold (WI) compiled the smallest (a savings of $295.0 million). House Republican agendas spanned a net savings of $43.0 billion (Sue Myrick, NC) to $150.2 billion (Steve LaTourette, OH). Senator Larry Craig (ID) had the lowest total for a Republican in his chamber, with a savings of $25.0 billion, while Olympia Snowe (ME) had the largest agenda among GOP Senators at $111.7 billion.
  • If every bill (including overlapping legislation) before the Senate were passed into law, federal spending would rise by a net of $1.2 trillion per year. Bills before the House would cumulatively cause federal spending to soar by $5.8 trillion. By contrast, the actual federal outlays in 2004 were $2.3 trillion.
  • For the 108th Congress, 21.3 spending-increase bills were introduced in the House for each bill that would lower spending – an improvement from the 23.7 to 1 ratio in the preceding Congress. The ratio also declined in the Senate 29.7 to 1 in the 108th Congress compared to 36.0 to 1 in the 107th. This is the first time since the 103rd Congress that increase-to-decrease ratios declined. In the 104th Congress (1995-1996), immediately following the Republican takeover of both Houses, the ratio reached its closest balance, about 2 to 1.
  • Overall, House Freshmen proposed less annual spending ($133.9 billion) than longer-serving House Members ($290.5 billion), while the same held true in the Senate ($30.8 billion for freshmen versus $98.8 billion for non-freshmen). Most of this statistical difference can be attributed to Democrats rather than Republicans.
  • In comparing legislative sponsorships to the results of the 2004 Presidential election, NTUF found that Representatives from "blue" states whose electoral votes went to John Kerry advocated over twice as much spending ($367.9 billion) as those representing "red" states that went for George W. Bush ($172.7 billion). Senators from blue states sought nearly three times as much spending as those from red states ($55.0 billion versus $157.8 billion).
  • Membership in voluntary caucuses within Congress also tended to produce variances in BillTally results. Democratic Members of the fiscally-moderate coalition known as "Blue Dogs" had agendas that were one-fourth as costly than non-Blue Dog House Democrats ($147.1 billion vs. $601.0 billion), while conservative Republican Study Committee Members sponsored roughly one-fifth less spending than other House Republicans ($31.1 billion compared to $37.5 billion).
  • In terms of dollar amounts, health care issues accounted for nearly 56 percent of the gross total cost of all bills introduced in the House and Senate, while defense and homeland security made up less than five percent of the total. Among spending-reduction legislation, Internal Revenue Code reform made up 77 percent of all gross budget savings proposed in the 108th Congress (primarily by ending the "refundable" portion of tax credits that provide a federal payment in excess of an individual's actual tax liability).

NTUF's BillTally system has tracked advocacy of spending increases and decreases in Congress throughout a 14-year period encompassing eras of both budget surpluses and deficits. During that time, BillTally recorded a drop in sponsorship of costly legislation during the surge of red ink in the early 1990s, followed by a significant presence of spending-cut activity in the mid-1990s and a steady rise in spending-increases during the late 1990s as budget surpluses appeared. However, according to the study author, there are conflicting signs over whether the rise of severe budget deficits over the past three years has produced a lasting trend toward less sponsorship of spending increases.

"There are some lagging signs that total agenda levels may have peaked and that Members of Congress are beginning to adjust their spending and savings priorities to the new fiscal environment," Brady concluded. "Thus far the changes have been only measurable as small ripples in a sea of red ink; only the future will show whether the tide is truly turning."

NTUF is the research and educational arm of the 350,000-member National Taxpayers Union. Note: NTUF Policy Paper 155, "The 108th Congress: Rising Floodwaters or a Change in Tide?" and detailed Member-by-Member BillTally results, are available online at www.ntu.org.

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