Congress Goes on Spending Binge

Published September 9, 2005

Congress just passed and President George W. Bush just signed a highway bill that will spend $286 billion over six years on roads and bridges, rail and bus facilities, bike paths and recreational trails. The president says the projects will create jobs.

That is baloney. Employing people to build roads doesn’t add jobs. The money spent on roads would have been spent on something else. That something else also would have employed people.

The real value of highways is in the transportation service they provide. Money spent on roads that serve little traffic (like the $24 billion worth of “earmarks” in the highway bill) is wasted.

In 1994, Rep. Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” inspired hope that Congress would rein in spending. It worked for a while, as the accompanying graphic shows. The number of bills calling for increased federal spending fell from nearly 1,500 in the pre-contract Congress (1993-1994) to fewer than 800 in the immediate post-contract Congress (1995-1996). But the trend didn’t last. In the 2003-2004 session, nearly 2,400 spending increase bills were introduced–more than ever before.

Highways aren’t the only way tax dollars are wasted. Government spending on a wide variety of programs has grown at rates faster than the growth of population and inflation combined.

Those who urge higher spending often stand to gain from the success of their efforts at persuasion. Bureaucrats may see their budgets increased. Their clients may receive payments. So-called “stakeholders” may garner contracts to sell, build, or provide a service. Some of the funds they acquire from the government can be used to finance yet another round of lobbying for higher spending.

Those who oppose spending increases will not bring home any bacon, even if they are successful in persuading the legislators of the rightness or utility of their position. At best, they can hope to keep a few dollars in their pockets rather than suffer another tax increase.

Most of the taxpayers who will foot the bill don’t have the time to come to the legislature to lobby against higher spending. They’re too busy working and earning the money the special interests are urging the legislators to tax and spend.

Legislators who recognize the imbalance and are perceptive enough to look past the long line of special interests are the taxpayers’ friends. They deserve the voters’ support.

John Semmens ([email protected]) is an economist and public policy advisor to The Heartland Institute in Chicago.