Why Congress Can’t Stop Spending

Published August 1, 2004

Congress spent one evening during the last week of June debating a token measure to reduce government spending by implementing very slight caps on some future entitlements. Not surprisingly, even this exceedingly modest bill failed overwhelmingly. The process behind the vote, however, reveals just how deeply ingrained the federal spending problem really is.

House leaders knew the spending control bill had little chance of passing. In fact, that’s why they allowed the vote to happen. The real goal was to appease fiscal conservatives in Congress, some of whom have become increasingly uncomfortable with the unrestrained spending contained in the proposed FY 2005 budget.

Some of these fiscal conservatives supported an alternative budget that spent about 1 percent less than the proposed budget. Even that nominal act of rebellion earned them the ire of the House leadership.

Symbolic Gesture

The spending control measure considered that June night was merely a symbolic gesture designed to quash the complaints of fiscal conservatives and ensure their cooperation when the final budget vote is cast later this year. After all, those members now can tell their constituents they voted to keep a lid on spending, even as they please their party bosses later.

The pressure to go along with the herd in Congress is intense, regardless of which party is in control. Every member knows that thwarting his party’s leadership, particularly on budget matters, is risky. Any opposition to spending bills can result in veiled or even open threats to cut funding for the member’s district, to limit the member’s committee assignments, and to bury the member’s legislation.

Some members who buck the system find themselves facing primary opponents in the next election as a result. The desire to win re-election is paramount, and those who go along get plenty of help from their party’s fundraising machines.

Predictably, almost all members of the House Appropriations committee–the committee initially responsible for every nickel of federal spending–voted against the bill. This simply highlights the institutional problem that plagues Congress and government in general: No politician ever voluntarily relinquishes power.

Ultimate Power

In Congress, control of the nation’s purse strings represents the ultimate power. Appropriators can reward some lawmakers and punish others with the stroke of a pen, by adding or eliminating federal projects in any congressional district. No amount of talk about spending can change the reality that government power naturally grows.

Everybody complains about pork, but members of Congress keep spending because voters do not throw them out of office for doing so. The rotten system in Congress will change only when the American people change their beliefs about the proper role of government in our society.

Too many members of Congress believe they can solve all economic problems, cure all social ills, and bring about worldwide peace and prosperity simply by creating new federal programs. We must reject unlimited government and reassert the constitutional rule of law if we hope to halt the spending orgy.

The words of H.R. Gross, the great libertarian-conservative congressman from Iowa (3rd district, 1949-75), ring as true today as they did during a budget debate in 1974:

“No amount of legislation will instill in a majority of the members of the House the ingredient, the element that has been missing. That is fiscal responsibility. Every Member knows that he or she cannot for long spend $75,000 a year on a salary of $42,000 and remain solvent. Every member knows this government cannot forever spend billions beyond tax revenue and endure. Congress already has the tools to halt the headlong flight into bankruptcy. It holds the purse strings. No President can impound funds or spend unwisely unless an improvident, reckless Congress makes available the money. I repeat, neither this nor any other legislation will provide morality and responsibility on the part of members of Congress.”

Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. represents the 14th District of Texas in the United States House of Representatives. He can be contacted via the Web feedback form at http://www.house.gov/paul/contact.shtml.