Stand very quietly on Capitol Hill these days and you can hear the cacophony of squeals as porked-up legislation disguised as "disaster relief" and "economic stimulus" heads for the federal trough. Coming so close behind the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history, it is causing even fellow partisans to wince.
Last year's herd of pork weighed in at about $18 billion, Capitol Hill number crunchers estimate. So far this year, they are tracking more than $80 billion in corporate welfare alone.
With the White House distracted by military action in Afghanistan and anthrax scares at home, Congress is responding to economic fallout from the terrorist attacks with subsidies, spending and tax adjustments.
Arguing for the Economic Security and Recovery Act of 2001 (HR3090), its sponsor, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), admitted that it was not a perfect tax bill. But, he added, "It isn't intended to be, because that is not what the country needs right now. What it needs is a true fiscal stimulus."
If the theories of liberal economist John Maynard Keynes were dead, say spending critics, these guys have resurrected him. Fiscal watchdogs argue that government intervention rarely stimulates an economy. "How did Congress get out of deficit spending?" asks Sean Rushton, spokesman for Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW). The answer: compounded economic growth. "Government spending went up," he points out, "but the economy (i.e. tax revenue) grew faster."
For years CAGW has argued that outdated and duplicative programs, fraud, mismanagement and waste in federal agencies estimated at approximately $1.2 trillion have plagued the nation. As a sign of good faith, Rushton says, Congress should redirect every cent of this year's unauthorized porcine earmarks -- estimated at $20 billion -- into defense, intelligence and emergency cleanup spending. "To do otherwise ... is a scandal during a time of national emergency," says the CAGW spokesman. "There comes a point where it seems like [Congress is] profiteering on this tragedy," says Rushton, a one-time aide to former congressman Bill Archer (R-Texas), Thomas' predecessor as House Ways and Means Committee chairman. CAGW is bracing for an official tally of post-Sept. 11 spending proposals it estimates will reach $330.03 billion if all the authorized, requested and proposed spending is enacted.
The CAGW is one of a coalition of antiwaste groups sniffing through the federal truffle patch to track the goodies. That's not an easy task. While pleas and proposals for federal dollars swirl throughout Capitol Hill, little in the way of explaining who ultimately will get what is being committed to the public record. The only thing slowing the porkfest has been the occasional anthrax alert.
Most of the proposed spending in the current packages is for immediate outlays, Rushton advises, but there are rolling subsidies that are destined to be paid over time. "Government is going to be spending [Sept. 11 emergency] money for decades," he laments.
The taxpayer-advocacy groups are hoping that Office of Management and Budget Director Mitchell Daniels will be the fire wall between pie-in-the-sky spending proposals and actual appropriated reality. "We think a lot of him generally," Rushton says. "The message he has consistently sent through the press has been, `Take spending slow.'"
But House Democrats have a laundry list of constituencies they also want to ply with federal programs and their substitute package includes proposals to extend expiring tax provisions such as the welfare-to-work and work-opportunity tax credits, and to provide $11 billion in interest-free financing for school construction. Many of their constituencies and pet programs were left out of the Thomas bill, so House Democrats are appealing to colleagues in the Senate to add to the spending juggernaut that squeaked out of the House on a 216-214 vote. …