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Impeach Bush

Federal spending per household is most since WWII
Boston Globe
By Susan Milligan, Globe Staff

spending chartWASHINGTON -- Congress is set to end its session next week with a vote on an $820 billion appropriations bill, capping two years of record-level spending economists say has raised the per-household outlay to its highest since World War II.

Such programs as the No Child Left Behind education law have combined with wartime costs and a generous farm bill to increase government spending by 16 percent in the last two years, compared with an average of 3.5 percent a year during the 1990s. The recent passage of a $396 billion Medicare expansion and overhaul bill is expected to drive spending even higher in future years.

The Heritage Foundation and other conservative groups expressed concerns yesterday about the spending habits of a Republican Congress that had promised fiscal restraint. The foundation said this Congress's spending increases went well beyond outlays for defense and homeland security: Subtracting those, spending still went up 11 percent over the past two years.

"It's always easy to be generous with other people's money," said Brian M. Riedl, a Heritage Foundation economist who released a report yesterday on special interest, or "pork barrel," items in the upcoming omnibus spending package, which would fund seven appropriations bills for 2004.

Riedl found that per-household spending this year reached $20,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars for the first time since World War II -- a trend he said makes a tax increase nearly inevitable. "People haven't felt the pain yet because . . . spending has been financed by budget deficits," he said.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a group that has defended spending on social programs in the past, arrived at similar conclusions. Looking at "discretionary spending" -- appropriations that exclude entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, whose payments are largely out of the control of the president -- spending in inflation-adjusted dollars has increased 8.7 percent a year under the current administration. That's up from an average of 4.2 percent a year in the last three years of the Clinton administration, CBPP economist Richard Kogan said.

"What you're seeing is real increases that are more than twice as fast in the first three years under Bush than under the last three years of Clinton, even though Bush has deficits and Clinton had surpluses," Kogan said.

Chad Kolton, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, disputed the numbers, which he said were subject to interpretation. Overall discretionary spending will go up just 4 percent this year, he said, and the increase in such spending has slowed in recent years.

The increases OMB calculates in "discretionary spending" don't include the $165.5 billion in supplemental spending bills Congress approved this year for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and for other programs, Riedl said.

These spending patterns have angered conservatives, who expected a dominant GOP to tighten budgets and shrink government.

"It's not good enough to say, `the other [Democratic] team would be worse,' " said Grover T. Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and one of a group of economists who voiced their budget worries to officials at a private White House meeting yesterday. While Republicans are on the same page when it comes to cutting taxes, he said, there is a lack of consensus over how to limit spending. "The Republican Party has not completely closed the deal on how to do it," he said.

Many Democrats have been complicit in the spending spree, backing much of this Congress's expensive legislation and making thousands of requests for pork barrel projects for their districts. Those projects consume a small portion -- tens of billions of dollars -- in the massive $820 billion spending bill Congress will take up next week, according to analyses by Heritage and Taxpayers for Common Sense.

"The bill is currently a hodgepodge of parochial pork for almost every congressional district in the nation. But this bill provides no direction or fiscal leadership for the country," said Steve Ellis, vice president of programs at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a fiscal watchdog group.

Budget-watchers note that Bush has the power to make rescissions in programs to cut their spending. Further, conservatives say, Bush has supported bills that increased entitlement spending. For example, the farm bill allocates a record $180 billion in assistance to agribusiness over the next 10 years, and the Medicare package Bush is scheduled to sign Monday would cost $396 billion over the next decade -- and many analysts think the price will grow. Approval of the stalled energy bill would cost the government at least another $23 billion in corporate subsidies and tax breaks, analysts and lawmakers say. Republican National Committee spokeswoman Heather Layman said the GOP has worked to hold the line on spending. "Since President Bush came into office Republicans have rejected $1.9 trillion in additional budget spending proposed by Democrats while passing $350 billion in tax relief just this year," she said.

And while some members of Congress have been critical of legislators' spending habits, Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, noted that lawmakers had to balance public needs against fiscal restraint. In the case of adding an expensive prescription drug benefit to Medicare, for example, Sessions said Congress was addressing "a crisis for seniors."

Fiscal watchdogs blame electoral politics. Cutting a program -- any program -- is bound to upset some constituency, and handing out aid can help win the support of key voter groups.

The Medicare bill, for example, may make senior citizens more fond of Bush, while the education bill -- despite frequent complaints from Democrats that it is underfunded -- may please some suburban parents, said Bill Beach, a budget analyst with the Heritage Foundation. Farm subsidies, meanwhile, are popular in the swing electoral states of Ohio, Iowa, and Missouri.

Bush's spending "is really threatening at this point to exceed that of Jimmy Carter. It's not a legacy he will want to have," Beach said. "We're hoping the real George Bush will step forward."

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.