Federal funding for tens of thousands of programs and projects, ranging from road and bridge construction to the study of mariachi music, was contained in a $388 billion omnibus spending bill that overwhelmingly passed both houses of Congress November 20.
Members of Congress praised the bill for holding down spending, but critics say the bill contains thousands of questionable expenditures totaling billions of dollars. Among their complaints: $350,000 for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, $75,000 for the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame in Appleton, Wisconsin, and $25,000 to the Clark County, Nevada, school district to study mariachi music.
The omnibus spending bill deals only with nonmilitary discretionary spending, which accounts for about one-seventh of the total amount of federal spending, estimated at $2.3 trillion for fiscal year 2005. The bill funds 13 fiscal year 2005 appropriations bills covering the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs, as well as numerous agencies and foreign aid. Congress already had approved spending bills for the military, homeland security, and the District of Columbia.
Bill “Held the Line”
“I’m very proud of the fact that we held the line and made Congress make choices and set priorities, because it follows our philosophy,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) during debate on the bill.
The $388 billion price tag is about 2 percent more than last fiscal year’s. Excluding foreign aid, total spending in the omnibus bill is up about 1 percent, well below the rate of discretionary-spending increases the past three years: 10.3 percent in 2002, 9.7 percent in 2003, and 8.3 percent in 2004. The 2004 budget deficit of $413 billion prompted calls to slow spending growth.
Though passed in November, the bill actually funds programs for the budget year that began October 1. The November 2 elections were a factor in the delay, as members of Congress tried to avoid votes that could have been used against them in the days leading up to the election. Congress ordinarily would have approved nine separate spending bills, but instead rolled them into the omnibus bill.
In addition to approving the spending, lawmakers also approved a provision for an $800 billion increase in the government’s borrowing limit.
Entitlement Programs Untouched
The omnibus spending bill does not deal with Social Security, Medicare, farm subsidies, or other nondiscretionary “entitlement” programs, which automatically provide government money to beneficiaries. Entitlement spending alone will total about $822 billion in 2005, more than one-third of all federal spending.
Referring to the soaring costs of entitlement spending, Robert Bixby, executive director of the nonpartisan Concord Coalition, told Alan Fram of the Associated Press, “If they don’t start focusing on the 800-pound gorilla, they’ll never be able to get control of the budget.” The Concord Coalition describes itself as an organization that “advocates fiscal responsibility while ensuring Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are secure for all generations.”
Though the spending bill received strong bipartisan support, some members of Congress were upset at the spending restraint as compared with prior years.
“It is totally inadequate to meet the nation’s needs in education, health care, and the environment,” Rep. David Obey (D-WI) told Fram. “It falls so far from meeting our investment obligations for the future that it could only be brought to the floor by the majority party after the election.”
The spending bill was nearly derailed between the time the House passed it and the Senate followed suit a few hours later. Someone inserted a one-line provision in the bill, which weighs about 14 pounds, that would have allowed the chairman of the House or Senate Appropriations Committee or appropriations committee staff members to look at anyone’s federal tax returns.
A Democratic Party staff member noticed the insertion after the House gave its approval and alerted members of Congress, who expressed anger at the potential invasion of privacy that would have been allowed. No one has owned up to the insertion, though it apparently was made by a House staff member.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) apologized for the provision on the Senate floor, insisting it was inserted without his knowledge. The Senate later approved language negating the provision and agreed to delay sending the bill to the president until the House also got rid of the language.
The Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW) used the flap over the IRS provision to take shots at the spending bill and the approval process, pointing out billions of dollars of pork spending and the lack of time members of Congress had to review the details of the package.
“This bill confirms that the appropriations process is broken,” CCAGW President Tom Schatz said. “The complex spending package was made available to members of Congress only hours before the vote. The invasive IRS measure is typical of last-minute additions to spending bills.”
Schatz added that the fiscal 2005 federal budget “is stingy only in a relative sense. If Congress is truly tightening its belt, then why was it necessary to increase the debt ceiling by $800 billion? There is little purpose to a debt ‘ceiling’ that can be arbitrarily raised to accommodate the congressional appetite for pork. The boasting over this bill shows that Congress is a long way from passing a truly balanced budget.”
To illustrate Schatz’s point, CCAGW cited a number of examples of what it considers pork spending. Among them were the following:
- $1.5 million for a demonstration project to transport naturally chilled water from Lake Ontario to Lake Onondaga;
- $335,000 to protect sunflowers in North Dakota from hungry birds;
- $250,000 for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee;
- $200,000 for Trenton Street Village pedestrian linkages in Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the nation’s wealthiest counties;
- $200,000 for the Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio;
- $100,000 for the Punxsutawney Weather Museum in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania;
- and $80,000 for the San Diego Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center.
“A critical part of rooting out wasteful and unnecessary spending is to consider and debate appropriations bills separately, in a timely manner, in order to avoid resorting to a pork-filled omnibus,” Schatz said.
Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.