Weak knees at the first step

As Republican congressmen began fleeing the city on Friday, they took with them any lingering hope that they might stand with their leaders in the battle to begin slowing down the frenzied spending that has characterized Congress for the past few years.

As Republican congressmen began fleeing the city on Friday, they took with them any lingering hope that they might stand with their leaders in the battle to begin slowing down the frenzied spending that has characterized Congress for the past few years.

The budget-reconciliation bill or, as House leaders like to call it, the “Deficit Reduction Act,” represented a tiny and some would say weak-kneed attempt by GOP leaders to assure the folks back home that they still believe in limited government and fiscal responsibility, but it was too much for Republican moderates who forced acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) to pull it Friday, as his army was high-tailing it to the airport.

All that could really be said for it was that it was a little better than the companion bill working its way through the Senate and that it was a first step that if not taken would make it unlikely that this Congress will take a second one.

Consider for a minute the “savings” Congress was unable to stomach. If passed, it would have resulted in savings of something less than $54 billion over the next five years. Now $54 billion sounds like a lot of money, but not as much as it once was … at least not when compared to the magnitude of government spending these days. It represented, in fact, a cut of somewhat less than one-half of 1 percent of spending over those years.

Heritage Foundation analysts put the magnitude of the cuts that so offended Congressional Democrats and Republican moderates into perspective. The proposed cuts would have been the equivalent of a family with a $50,000-a-year income having to pay off an unexpected emergency-room bill for $250 over five years.

The cuts to the budget included in this bill were tiny by any measure. There have been three reconciliation bills passed since 1990, and the smallest of them included roughly seven times as much in savings as those condemned last week as “too big.”

Such miniscule cuts, though unacceptable to a majority consisting of virtually all House Democrats and a couple of dozen GOP moderates, would do little to reduce the deficit, but they would have at least demonstrated a desire to do something about it and might have led to more meaningful action down the road. Friday’s capitulation by congressional GOP leaders after several days of trying to appease moderates by gutting the bill signals what may be the end of any meaningful attempt to control spending this year.

Still, Blunt was right to pull the bill and admit defeat because it was clear by Friday that the moderates weren’t going to support it no matter what he might be willing to do to appease them.

First, they wanted to reverse the earlier decision to exempt Hurricane Katrina reconstruction work form the requirements of the Davis-Bacon Act and they got their way. But that just wasn’t enough. Sensing weakness, they got together to demand that the provision that would have finally made it possible to get at the oil and gas reserves in Alaska be eliminated, and they got their way again.

This surrender by Blunt outraged the rest of his troops and left him with a bill that no one really liked and that, as it turned out, still wasn’t likely to attract the moderate votes it needed to pass.

Indeed, it looked increasingly like the legislation designed to begin cutting spending was going to be used to increase it. Moderates began demanding that a multibillion-dollar milk subsidy be added and that the Senate add a provision to send more money to, you guessed it, Alaska. A perhaps noble attempt to take that first small step was beginning to look like a joke.

The irony is that people supposedly concerned about the deficit, runaway spending and the energy crisis actually applauded those who sunk the bill. The Washington Post’s David Broder, for example, waxed enthusiastic at the rise of the moderates, which he traces to frustration over “the war in Iraq … a profligacy to federal spending that neither party is willing to stanch … [and] … inaction on large problems that hurt families, whether it be the cost of home heating or the availability of medical care.”

Neither Broder nor anyone else has been able to explain how banning oil and gas exploration in Alaska or on the Outer Continental Shelf, refusing to extend the reduced capital-gains rates that have helped spur domestic economic growth or balking at the prospect of cutting anything at all from the budget furthers dealing with these problems.

Maybe in their minds it was enough that conservatives took it on the chin for trying for once to do the right thing.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).

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