Ten Years After GOP Takeover, Trend to Spend Still Shaping Congress

Published November 1, 2004

For every spending cut introduced during the first 18 months of this 108th Congress, there were more than 20 bills to increase spending. The most enthusiastic supporters of greater government outlays were Rep. Martin Frost (D-TX), who sponsored more than 270 spending hikes, and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), who sponsored more than 170 spending hikes.

These are some of the findings of the latest BillTally study, released October 7 by the National Taxpayers Union Foundation (NTUF). The report shows the prospects for smaller government have gone from promising to poor to uncertain in the 10 years since Republicans took charge of Congress.

Republicans promised a fiscal revolution when they were elected in 1994, ending decades of Democratic Party control of Congress. Instead, government has continued to grow.

“The surge in the size of lawmakers’ spending agendas occurred long before [the] September 11 [attacks] and has continued long afterward,” said NTUF President John Berthoud. “The data show that issues such as war and homeland security serve as a cloak rather than an explanation for the return to deficit spending in Washington.”

Legislative Sponsorship of Spending Bills

NTUF began the BillTally project in 1991 to study a stage in the fiscal policy development process the organization believed had received only superficial or occasional examination: legislative sponsorship. Although voting records provide one way of assessing budgetary principles, observers often cannot know the reasons behind votes.

For example, a vote against increasing Medicare spending could be made because the senator or congressman believes the bill provides too much funding … or too little. By contrast, bill sponsorship provides a look at an individual’s fiscal philosophy in its purest form, free from the influence of committees, party leaders, and rules surrounding floor votes.

For more than a dozen years, BillTally accounting software has compiled the cost or savings of all legislation introduced in Congress that would affect annual federal spending by at least $1 million. Agenda totals for individual lawmakers are developed by cross-indexing their sponsorship and co-sponsorship records with cost estimates for bills under rules that prevent the double counting of overlapping proposals. All such estimates are obtained from third-party sources or calculated from neutral data.

Proposed Increases Swamp Proposed Cuts

Among the findings for the first 18 months of the current Congress are the following:

  • A total of 871 Senate bills and 1,147 House bills were identified as having an expected net impact of plus or minus $1 million. For each bill to reduce spending introduced in the Senate, there were 29 bills to increase spending. For each bill to lower spending introduced in the House, there were nearly 22 bills to raise spending.
  • In the Senate, each $1 of proposed savings was overwhelmed by $18.16 in new spending. In the House, each $1 of proposed savings was swamped by $47.66 in spending increases.
  • Twenty-two representatives sponsored more than five spending-cut bills each. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-FL) sponsored the most (11).
  • Fifty-seven representatives did not sponsor any bills to lower spending, and 131 could find only one spending reduction bill to support among the 50 that were introduced.
  • Representatives on average sponsored 68 bills to increase spending. Representative Martin Frost (D-TX) sponsored the most spending increases (273).
  • Only one senator, Russ Feingold (D-WI), sponsored more than five spending-cut bills.
  • Thirty-one senators did not sponsor any bills to cut spending, and 36 senators sponsored only one spending reduction bill among the 29 that were proposed.
  • Senators on average sponsored 63 bills to increase spending. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) led the chamber with sponsorship of 174 spending hikes.

Parties Differ Strongly

What became of GOP leaders’ 1990s promises to roll back the budget increases enacted under Democrats? Initially, there were signs of change. In the 104th and 105th Congresses (the 104th Congress was elected in 1994 and seated in January 1995), House and Senate Republicans boasted agendas that would, on average, reduce overall federal spending from the previous year.

Since then the typical GOP lawmaker’s sponsorship has trended upward, reaching record highs in the current Congress. Nonetheless, the difference between the parties’ approaches toward spending remains clear: The typical House Democrat sponsored or co-sponsored legislation that would increase federal outlays 14 times higher than legislation backed by the typical House Republican. The typical Senate Democrat’s net agenda was six times larger than the net spending agenda of the average Senate Republican.

Freshman members of Congress in both parties proposed less spending than their longer-serving colleagues (47 percent less in the House and 76 percent less in the Senate). The difference was most notable among House Democrats: The typical returning House Democrat proposed to spend nearly $200 billion more than the typical Democrat newcomer did.

Besides seniority, membership in congressional caucuses also seemed to produce differences in spending agendas. Two such caucuses, the Republican Study Committee (RSC) and the Democrat Blue Dog Coalition (BDC), both claim to promote fiscal discipline within their respective parties. While the average member of each of these caucuses compiled a net agenda that would increase spending, there was a measurable difference from members of their respective parties who are not in either caucus. The typical RSC member proposed less spending (11.9 percent) and more savings (249 percent) than the average non-RSC Republican. The same held true for Blue Dogs, who advocated 74 percent less spending and 481 percent more savings than other Democrats.

Richest Senators Want to Spend Most

The partisan contrast appears even sharper among an even more elite congressional “caucus”–those House and Senate members with the greatest personal wealth.

The 20 senators at the top of Roll Call newspaper’s “richest” list called for a 77 percent bigger boost in federal budget outlays than the average for their 80 remaining colleagues. A larger share of well-off senators are Democrats than Republicans.

In the House the opposite held true: The 20 richest representatives sought federal spending increases that were 73 percent smaller than their less-wealthy counterparts. A larger share of well-off representatives are Republicans than Democrats.

Spending Cut Proposals Are on Rise

Although the average net spending agenda of both parties in the House and Senate is on track to reach new heights in this Congress, Berthoud noted there are some signs members may be regaining an interest in reining in spending.

While the number of spending-increase bills reached record highs in the House and Senate, spending-cut bills in the House also became more prevalent, for the first time since the 103rd Congress. A similar uptick occurred in the Senate, for the first time since the 104th Congress.

“Ten years ago, record deficits spurred the movement toward proposals to cut spending,” Berthoud said. “Time will tell whether these signs become a full-fledged trend. If they do not, the continued demand for increases in the federal budget will be detrimental to efforts to reform the tax code and modernize Social Security, and it will jeopardize vows by both presidential candidates to cut the deficit in half.”

Demian Brady ([email protected]) is senior policy analyst and BillTally project manager for the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, the nonpartisan research and educational arm of the 350,000-member National Taxpayers Union.

For more information …

The NTUF BillTally Study, which includes detailed member-by-member sponsorship reports, is available online at http://www.ntu.org.