Pence: A Lonesome Voice Against Spending
Indiana Writers Group column for March 29 and thereafter
by Andrea Neal
A March 23 report by the Heritage Foundation puts congressional spending trends into terms taxpayers can understand. At current rates of increase, "the budget will require a $7,000-per-household tax increase" within a decade, says researcher Brian M. Riedl.
Think it can’t happen? Take a look at the language in S Con Res 83, the Senate-passed budget resolution that sets forth spending intentions through 2011. For 2007, the plan calls for $2.8 trillion in spending and a deficit of $359 billion. Increases for defense, entitlement programs, and Medicare will guarantee rising deficits — and debt — well into the next presidential administration.
These are the kinds of numbers that have prompted Indiana’s Mike Pence to push for congressional budget reform comparable to the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act. That law resulted in automatic budget cuts when congressional spending exceeded income and was one of a handful of successful tools used to protect taxpayers.
As head of the Republican Study Committee, the conservative caucus of the U.S. House, Pence has taken aim at his own party for spending hikes that exceed anything that occurred during the Clinton era. Under President Bush, federal spending neared $22,000 per household last year, the highest level since World War II. Overall, spending has increased by 45 percent since 2001.
Earlier this month, Pence unveiled a proposal to balance the budget by 2011 and called on fellow Republicans to renew a vow of fiscal discipline, a pledge he considers responsible for the election of the GOP majority in 1994. The RSC budget would eliminate 150 federal programs and agencies, retain tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003 and cap Medicare growth at 5.4 percent.
Pence, a former president of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, was the only Hoosier and one of only 16 Republicans to vote earlier this month against the supplemental spending bill to pay for the War on Terror and Hurricane Katrina relief. For Pence, it was a matter of principle. What had started out as an emergency military appropriation had become, he said, "a fruit basket of spending unrelated to our war effort."
"With a record deficit and national debt, now is the time for Congress to change the way we spend the people’s money and practice fiscal discipline, even when funding the War on Terror is concerned," he said. The bill passed 348-71.
Though part of a small minority on Capitol Hill, Pence is embraced by conservative think tanks concerned about a coming fiscal meltdown.
The Cato Institute this month repeated its call for a budget cap, noting that the government has run deficits in 33 of the past 37 years. "One problem is that current budget procedures stack the deck in favor of program expansion without regard to the burdens imposed on current or future taxpayers," says Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies.
Pence’s critics say he and groups like Heritage and Cato oversimplify the issues because of their ideological bias in favor of smaller government. "Mr. Pence has a belief the problem is solely rooted in spending issues. We think it’s a mixture of spending and tax issues," says Gary Bass, executive director of a liberal watchdog group, OMB Watch. Bass’s organization advocates more efficient government, but opposes tax cuts and other policies that threaten the revenue base.
Yet even Bass acknowledges the irony that so much spending has occurred under a president who championed limited government. "There’s no question the hard-core conservatives are frustrated," he says.
According to Heritage Foundation, from 2001 to 2006, all years in which Bush has enjoyed majorities in both houses of Congress, education spending has risen 137 percent, international affairs spending 111 percent, and health research and regulation spending 78 percent.
Trends involving entitlements, such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, are worse. Unless Congress does something, the cost of these three programs will balloon from 8.4 percent of Gross Domestic Product today to 19 percent by 2050.
In an ideal world, Congress would be constitutionally barred from going into debt, as is Indiana. Almost every state imposes some kind of limit on spending, such as requiring voters or legislative majorities to approve deficit spending.
Lawmakers in Washington have never shown the will to enact a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, and never will. But spending limits suggested by Pence should not be dismissed as some quixotic notion. Unless, of course, we are prepared to tax American households an extra $7,000 a year, as so many in Congress seem ready and willing to do.
Andrea Neal, former editorial page editor of the Indianapolis Star, is adjunct scholar and columnist with Indiana Policy Review. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.