NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Spending Limits Frustrate Committee Chairmen's Urge To Spend

April 7, 1999

Most of the 26 GOP chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees complain that they can't live under strict spending limits imposed earlier. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) says, "I don't think we can live under these caps."

  • The spending caps apply to $536.3 billion of the $1.7 trillion federal budget -- the so-called discretionary funds that pay for the vast government bureaucracy.
  • Imposed in 1997 to bring the budget into balance in five years, overall spending under the caps is to be held at least $9 billion below what it was last year.
  • At stake are projects which politicians thrive on -- bridges and highway overpasses that lead to reelection, national park maintenance, energy research and funding for Coast Guard shipbuilding contracts.
  • "Emergency" spending last year pushed the budget $21 billion over the caps -- an experience the GOP vowed never to repeat.

A few top appropriators, however, insist that staying below the caps is doable and desirable. "We need this type of discipline," says Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), whose subcommittee handles foreign aid -- a program Callahan says he's not a "big proponent" of anyway.

Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Interior and related agencies practices budgetary triage. First come "must do" priorities, such as keeping national parks open. Then there are "need to do," such as clearing the backlog of maintenance at the parks." Finally, there are "nice to do" projects -- such as building a visitors' center or acquiring a piece of land.

With the caps, "nice to dos" are gone, along with possibly a delay of maintenance.

Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), Regula's Senate counterpart, likes to fund special projects and says he is "clearly the most popular man in the Senate when my subcommittee is meeting." He worries about the future of Philadelphia's Independence Mall -- a "great, great idea" and a personal favorite.

Source: Guy Gugliotta and George Hager, "The Straightjacket of Strict Spending Limits," Washington Post, April 6, 1999.


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