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Control profligate spending

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted July 19, 2004

Roscoe Bartlett was a surprise winner in a 1992 Congressional race in Maryland. He had run for office before and had never been elected. In office, he settled in as a principled but still reliable vote that the leadership could almost always count on in a pinch.

That is why Bartlett startled his audience at a meeting on Capitol Hill earlier this month when he announced that he couldn't sleep one night because he had voted for an appropriations bill which was laden with pork and which greatly added to the deficit.

Bartlett said out loud what has been a dirty little secret in Washington for years when he pronounced, "The appropriators blackmail you." He said the so-called "cardinals" (the chairmen of the appropriations subcommittees and committees) tell you "vote for my appropriations bills or your projects won't see the light of day". That is how, as Bartlett sees it, they keep control. Members of Congress want to do their best for their own constituents, and that means bringing home the bacon for their district. So they vote for these bloated appropriations bills just so their projects will get consideration.

Roscoe Bartlett"I can't do it anymore," Bartlett told his audience. "I can't saddle my grandchildren with the kind of debt we are accumulating. And it is really $200 billion worse than you read about because the trust funds are counted as revenue when they really are not, but they help hide part of the deficit."

Bartlett said he intended to write a letter to his constituents in the form of an op-ed announcing that he no longer could, in conscience, vote for bloated appropriations bills even though that likely means that most projects for his Maryland Congressional district may not be funded. "I believe they will understand and will support my decision. " He said, "I am 78 years old. There is nothing I want from anyone. There is nothing they can do to me." Bartlett said neither the appropriations chairmen nor the leadership can ever again count on his vote.

One cynic, listening to the six-term Maryland Republican said afterwards, "Sure, he makes up his mind when he is likely about to be elected to his last term." Perhaps, but Bartlett is known by his colleagues as a very decent and honest man. He often tells them what they don't want to hear.

In this Congress he is the sponsor of a bill to repeal the sections of McCain/Feingold bill at odds with freedom of speech. He has, for years, given a speech throughout his district on the effects of deficit spending. This Congress, controlled by Republicans now for a decade, for the first time with a Republican President, is what broke the bank in Bartlett's view.

"It is hard for me to accept that a Republican President and a Republican Congress can create the greatest increase in discretionary domestic spending since the Great Society," Bartlett said.

Other Members have revolted because of the same idea. But it is Bartlett's willingness to blow the whistle on the "blackmail" that could have the most wide-ranging effect. While the practice has been around for at least as long as my 38 years in this town (the Senator for whom I worked was a member of the Appropriations Committee), Members of Congress almost never spoke of it in public. While it might have been mentioned in passing as an explanation for a profligate vote, it certainly was never made a central issue. In fairness to Bartlett, he intends to announce his new policy before the election. Obviously, if his constituents believe he is wrong, they can vote for his opponent and send him packing. If they re-elect him, they will have to understand that projects for which they want federal funding may not get federal dollars.

If we want to actually do something about runaway federal spending, we need to pressure Members of Congress (and Senators for that matter) to follow Bartlett's lead and announce it in a major, public way. When the appropriators are no longer able to strong-arm Members, their power is gone. Once their power is gone we can demand that they stop these massive increases in federal spending. In fact, we might even be able to demand that they actually CUT federal spending.

Here are other things which can help get spending under control. We have been pushing for a vote on the Brownback-Tiahrt bill which would establish a base closing style commission to review all non-defense, non-entitlement federal spending. Anything that is outdated, duplicative, fraudulent or non-productive would be put on the chopping block. Congress would get an up-or-down vote to either continue this kind of spending or to end it. I have spoken with Senator Frist, the Majority Leader and Congressman Blunt, the House Majority Whip. Both of them promised to see about the possibility of trying to pass this legislation in this Congress. That would be a good start, but to really make progress we are going to have to ignite many more Roscoe Bartletts in the Congress.

Congress is about to take a long recess beginning the end of this week through Labor Day. Both Senators and Congressmen are going to be spending much of that time back home. It would be interesting to hear what they say when the Bartlett story is related to them and they are asked to join the effort.

Paul M. Weyrich is CEO and Chairman of the Free Congress Foundation.

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