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Correction to This Article
An Aug. 4 article on congressional spending incorrectly said that the two appropriations bills for 2006 that have been completed by Congress exceeded lawmakers' prescribed spending caps by $134 million. Those caps were established by the House; the bills do not exceed the Senate's spending caps.

In Congress, the GOP Embraces Its Spending Side

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) cited legislative accomplishments last month before Congress left Washington for its summer break.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) cited legislative accomplishments last month before Congress left Washington for its summer break. (By Shaun Heasley -- Reuters)

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By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 4, 2005

GOP leaders this week sent House Republicans home for the summer with some political tips, helpfully laid out in 12 "Ideas for August Recess Events." Drop by a military reserve center to highlight increased benefits, the talking points suggest. Visit a bridge or highway that will receive additional funding, or talk up the new prescription drug benefit for seniors.

Having skirted budget restraints and approved nearly $300 billion in new spending and tax breaks before leaving town, Republican lawmakers are now determined to claim full credit for the congressional spending. Far from shying away from their accomplishments, lawmakers are embracing the pork, including graffiti eradication in the Bronx, $277 million in road projects for Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), and a $200,000 deer-avoidance system in New York.

When the year started, President Bush made spending restraint a mantra, laying out an austere budget that would freeze non-security discretionary spending for five years and setting firm cost limits on transportation and energy bills. But now, as Congress fills in the details of the budget plan, there is little interest in making deep cuts and enormous pressure to spend.

Lawmakers have seen little to fear from a political backlash, some acknowledge, and Bush has yet to wield his veto pen. In fact, the White House has proved itself largely unable to overcome the institutional forces that have long driven lawmakers to ply their parochial interests with cash.

When lawmakers return in the fall, they are almost certain to vote for more tax cuts. They also will vote on a huge new defense spending bill. But proposals for cutting entitlement programs including Medicaid have yet to pick up much support.

"If you look at fiscal conservatism these days, it's in a sorry state," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), one of only eight House members to vote against the $286.5 billion transportation bill that was passed the day before the recess. "Republicans don't even pretend anymore."

Last week, Congress approved transportation and energy bills that burst through the president's cost limits. Annual spending bills are inching above caps set by Congress itself in its budget plan for 2006. And a massive water projects bill passed by the House last month authorizes spending that would exceed current levels by 173 percent.

"You have to be courageous to not spend money," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), "and we don't have many people who have that courage."

Indeed, Congress has exceeded the allocations or assumptions in its budget resolution four times -- and the year's legislative work is far from complete. According to the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, those budget violations have raised spending through 2010 by roughly $2.2 billion above Congress's limits and tacked $115 billion onto the federal budget deficit through the end of decade, including $33 billion in 2006 alone.

That $33 billion may be tantamount to a rounding error in a $2.6 trillion budget, but it is 10 percent of the $333 billion budget deficit the White House has forecast for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.

"There's a rising level of frustration with the disconnect between where the vast majority of conservatives are in this country and how Congress is behaving," said former representative Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), whose Club for Growth political action committee finances the campaigns of conservative candidates. "There's going to be a wake-up call sooner or later."

For now, Congress and the White House are locked in a pattern of skirting their own constraints. In 2004, Bush demanded that no highway bill exceed $256 billion. Under pressure, he increased his limit to $284 billion this year. Congress responded with a five-year, $286.5 billion measure, but even that figure may be deceptive, Flake warned. The bill actually authorizes expenditures of $295 billion but assumes that, on the last day of the bill's life, Congress will rescind $8.5 billion in unused funds.


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