As Congress looks for budget cuts to pay for damage from Hurricane Katrina, lawmakers are facing the fact that many projects on the chopping block are dear to their constituents.
House conservatives outlined nearly 100 government programs yesterday that they want to slash to pay for the $200 billion that rebuilding the Gulf Coast may cost. But House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) shot down two of the list's big-ticket items: repealing the 6,000 special projects, worth $24 billion, in the recently passed highway bill; and delaying introduction of the Medicare prescription drug benefit, to take effect in January, for a $31 billion cost savings.
"We are willing to look at offsets, if there are viable offsets," Hastert told reporters. However, he said: "I don't think it would be prudent at this point to say we are going to stop our Medicare program. We need to have that. It is something seniors across the county look forward to." Nor was he keen to touch the new transportation funding package. "It is exactly the highway bill we need," Hastert said.
Congress already has approved $62 billion in emergency aid to the Gulf Coast region, and yesterday the House unanimously backed $6.1 billion in Katrina-related tax breaks to help individuals and businesses to recover from the storm. The Senate approved the tax breaks by voice vote last night.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) on Tuesday called holding back the Medicare proposal "a nonstarter," pointing out that President Bush opposes the idea, too. He said reopening the highway bill "is still an option," but added that the maneuver could backfire, because lawmakers could try to wedge in even more perks.
Other cuts proposed by House conservatives include slicing $50 billion from Medicaid over five years and an additional $80 billion over five years from Medicare. Farm payments would be reduced and graduate student loans would no longer be subsidized. Page after page of the proposal, dubbed "Operation Offsets," details cuts to foreign aid, military spending and corporate subsidy programs.
If previous budget battles are any guide, few of the ideas stand much chance of being enacted. And as for the transportation bill, it may be loaded with pork, but it is pork that was inserted by Congress's highest leadership echelons.
Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group, found $500 million in Hastert-sponsored transportation projects in the measure. The money is mainly going to widen roads in Hastert's suburban Chicago district, but it also will fund a bicycle path and a sidewalk.
The group reported that DeLay's Houston district collected nearly $440 million for local projects, while the leader of the House conservatives, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), netted $16 million to fund special projects in his district.
The watchdogs are skeptical that Congress could take back the entire $24 billion in individual highway projects. About $14 billion in perks is embedded in individual state formulas, making them hard to remove. But the remaining $10 billion "can and should be cut immediately by Congress," urged Taxpayers for Common Sense in a statement.
Staff writer Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.