The painful joke in Washington, D.C., is that while there are two political parties in America, there are actually three political parties in the U.S. Congress: Republicans, Democrats, and Appropriators.
This provides no challenge to the modern Democratic Party. Democratic appropriators are professional lifelong spenders of other people’s money. Ordinary Democratic congressmen are too. They are simply jealous of the appropriators’ proximity to the cookie jar.
For Republicans, appropriators who wear the Republican jersey became a fifth column — congressmen who saw themselves as “spenders” in a party whose platform, leaders, and press releases tried to brand the party as the one dedicated to reducing government spending. When Republicans controlled Congress, GOP appropriators also found that they could raise campaign funds in return for sticking earmarks into legislation. This meant that the 36 Republican appropriators in the House and the 18 Republican appropriators in the Senate found they could afford to spend less time appealing to conservatives back in their districts. Over time, appropriators tended to become spenders first, Republicans second, and conservatives less and less. Worse, the trading of earmarked appropriations for campaign contributions, a practice known as “pay to play,” is considered an art by Chicago Democrats but corruption by suburban and rural Republican district voters. And eventually such pay to play does in some cases become undeniable corruption very much damaging to the Republican brand, as in the tragic case of Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA), who resigned in 2005 after admitting to taking millions in bribes.
Beginning during the height of Republican control of the House — before most Republicans were willing to see the problem — there was an on-again, off-again campaign to term limit membership on the Appropriations Committee to six years, on the theory that no Republican would then see himself as a permanent member of the spending class. The Budget Committee, created in the 1974 Budget Act, limited its members to six years, not just for the chairman, but for membership on the committee itself. Perhaps the power held by appropriators and the resulting corruption could be limited through term limits.
A different approach now gaining support builds on an example from recent history of a successful structural reform that actually saved taxpayers money and eliminated government programs.
When the United States declared war on Japan, Germany, and Italy during World War II, U.S. senator Harry F. Byrd (D-VA) wanted to pay for more of the war effort not by raising taxes but by reducing non-defense government expenditures. He designed the Joint Committee on Reduction of Nonessential Federal Expenditures, which he chaired from 1941 to his retirement in 1965. This committee, also known as the Byrd Committee, was a bicameral body with members from the House and Senate. It had subpoena power to compel bureaucrats to testify and open up their books. Its sole mission was to identify nonessential federal expenditures and recommend their elimination or reduction. The committee published scorekeeping reports on congressional action flowing from their recommendations.
The committee had 14 members: three from each of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, three from the House Ways and Means Committee, and three from the Senate Finance Committee. There were eight Democrats and four Republicans, as the Democrats held the majority in Congress. The secretary of the treasury and the director of the bureau of the budget also served on it.
The Byrd Committee had real accomplishments. In its “Economic Progress Report of 1945,” the committee reported that in 1941, 1942, 1943, and 1944 the committee spent $45,913.08 dollars “for all purposes” and made recommendations resulting in direct savings of $2,457,623,568. The committee cheerfully pointed out that this was “an expenditure of less than $20 for every million dollars saved.” The committee further claimed “indirect savings” of $600 million, thus claiming total savings of $3 billion (in 1945 dollars). The equivalent in today’s dollars would be $38.5 billion.
Congress followed the committee’s recommendation and abolished the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1943, saving $238,960,000. One can only imagine how large the CCC would be today if it had not been strangled in its oversized crib early on.
In 1943 Congress followed the committee’s recommendations to drastically cut back the Work Projects Administration (WPA), saving $540 million, and in 1944 the committee “urged the complete liquidation of the Work Projects Administration’s activities,” which recommendation was accepted by the Congress. The unexpended appropriation was returned to the treasury, saving another $106,168,499.
In 1944 the National Youth Administration was eliminated, saving $56,744,000.
This real record of accomplishment came with Democratic control of both houses of Congress and Mr. Big Government, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in the White House.
Sadly, the committee lost its potency after the end of World War II, possibly because Congress was not required to take up its proposals and the sense of urgency had dissipated with the end of the war. While doing little more than submitting monthly reports on the number of federal employees and publishing statistics on government spending between 1945 and 1974, the committee still listed an impressive 45 proposed reductions and eliminations that were enacted by Congress.
When President Bush invaded Iraq, there was no demand from the White House to find offsetting reductions in federal spending. And there was no structure in Congress to compete with and push back against the appropriators who viewed the increase in military spending as an argument to increase all other spending. How does one tell the appropriators focused on education and labor that the military appropriators get five ice cream cones and they still only get one?
Republicans are looking at recreating a version of the Byrd Committee as part of any new “Contract with America” or “Contract from America.” As Republicans are increasingly confident of capturing the House, and winning the Senate remains a possibility (albeit a long shot), the modern Byrd Committee is being proposed as two committees, one in the House and one in the Senate, with full subpoena power and the ability to draft legislation with recommended cuts that might be given an expedited up-or-down vote on the floor.
This would change the dynamics and the politics of the fight for lower spending. With such an anti-appropriations committee in place, a congressional candidate could campaign announcing to his district that he wishes, once elected, not to join the Appropriations Committee to steal stuff and drag it back to a privileged few recipients in the district, but to serve on the anti-spending committee bringing lower government costs to everyone in the district.
The next generation of self-promoting camera hogs could become regular guests on week-end television shows and talk radio by bragging about how many billions they saved America rather than speaking to the local chamber of commerce about how they snitched a few hundred thousand to give to a local nabob and his favorite charity.
Giving the anti-spending forces their own committee with congressional staff and the all-important subpoena power would begin to stem the tide of growing spending. Promoting the establishment of a new Byrd Committee as a campaign issue would also displace Obama’s attempt to undermine America’s growing antipathy to big spending, the “Deficit Commission.”
The goal of the Democrats over the next year, and in the next set of elections, is to misdirect America’s anger over the overspending, the bailouts, the stimulus, the budget increases, and the trillions for government health care, not to mention the trillions of corporate welfare for energy made from pixie dust paid for with taxes on reality-based energy. The Democrats wish to focus on the “deficit” rather than on “spending.” They have a solution to the deficit — a value-added tax to pay for the overspending.
The return of the Joint Committee on Reduction of Nonessential Federal Expenditures would put the focus correctly on spending, create a constituency in Congress for popularizing the fight against spending, and arm the members of the Anti-Appropriations committee with the weapons of choice in Washington: staff, subpoenas, and the ability to grab headlines.