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Parties in race to see who can spend the most


CHICAGO -- Last August, President Bush demanded that Congress curb its appetite for spending, "so that we can continue to send the signals to people around the country that we're serious about being fiscally responsible with people's money." The next day, he signed a pork-laden transportation bill that broke all records for public works spending. He and Congress have been sending signals, all right.

In the 1960s, Alabama Gov. George Wallace insisted there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between the two parties. But when it comes to federal spending, that always rang false. Democrats talk in terms of expanding government efforts to help people, which invariably costs money, while Republicans preach the need to limit Washington's role in our lives, which ought to be cheaper.

These days, it's clear that Mr. Wallace was wrong. There is a dime's worth of difference between the two parties. But a dime is about all.

Since 1994, the National Taxpayers Union Foundation has added up every dollar that every member of Congress casts a vote to spend. The results of a study of how Congress did in 2005 indicate that when it comes to federal outlays, there is only one party in Washington: the Spendthrifts.

The average Republican member of the House voted to boost spending by $168 billion, while Democrats averaged $178 billion. In the Senate, Republicans were even less frugal than in the House, voting for $183 billion in new spending on average. But Senate Democrats bid even higher, averaging $217 billion. These figures don't even count spending on entitlements and other "mandatory" programs, which are also running out of control.

This dismal record is actually better than the one Congress compiled in 2004. Does it suggest a new frugality? Not according to Jeff Dircksen, NTUF's director of congressional analysis. "There comes a point when they just can't spend any faster," he says. "How many unmet needs are there that they could possibly pour money on?"

In recent years, they haven't been pouring it on so much as spewing it out of a fire hose. Since 2001, expenditures have risen by more than $900 billion, an increase of nearly 50 percent. The expansion of federal discretionary spending has been faster than it was under President Lyndon B. Johnson, who used to be the king of the big spenders but has been dethroned by President Bush.

Despite his avowed commitment to fiscal responsibility, Mr. Bush has yet to back up his words by vetoing a bill that costs too much. He has plenty of partners in crime. There are congressional Democrats who voted for even more outlays than Republicans. But the leadership of the GOP, which controls both houses, bears much of the blame.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert voted to increase net spending by $245 billion, far more than the average Democrat. Recently departed House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist voted for $329 billion - nearly as much as House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

All this, says NTUF, is quite a change from the days when congressional Republicans were at fierce odds with President Bill Clinton. In 1997, the average House member voted to reduce total spending by $6.2 billion, while the average senator voted for an increase of only $3.9 billion.

Back then, the two parties were chasing each other in a virtuous cycle, competing to get credit for balancing the budget. That competition produced a budget surplus.

Now the opposite is taking place. Once Republicans abandoned spending restraint, Democrats were free to follow their natural instincts, which gave Republicans even more room to shovel out dollars, which encouraged Democrats to outbid them, which leaves us with a bloated budget and a deficit that this year will exceed $300 billion.

Reversing this race to bankruptcy will require elected leaders to stop spending like there is no tomorrow. But when it comes to that sort of wisdom and courage, Washington is suffering another deficit.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. His e-mail is schapman@tribune.com.

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