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Is it Really About Fiscal Responsibility?

November 13, 2007 - by Donny Shaw

The budget battle between President Bush and Congress is all about a difference of $22 billion — a relatively small amount when you consider that, altogether, the budget totals nearly $3 trillion. Bush has threatened to veto 8 of Congress’s 12 spending bills for the year because, he says, the contain “irresponsible and excessive levels of spending.” Yet on Tuesday, Bush both vetoed the bill that exceeds his request by the highest amount of all the bills and signed into law the bill that falls just below it on that list.

The two bills only differ by about $3.6 billion and their sharply contrasting treatment by the President suggests that the budget battle isn’t about fiscal responsibility as mush as it is about policy preferences and politics. The bill Bush signed into law on Tuesday, the Department of Defense Appropriations Act, exceeded his request by $6.4 billion, while the one he vetoed, the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Act, exceeded his request by around $10 billion.

Sure, $3.6 billion is a good chunk of change, but in the context of the federal budget, it’s is small enough to make you think that this whole thing is about something other than excessive spending levels.

When you look at how the 2008 bills differ from their 2007 counterparts, it shows that fiscal discipline may not be the real issue. Bush is willing to sign large spending increases as long as they go towards funding his favorite government agencies.

The Defense bill that President Bush signed, despite its excesses, goes towards causes (such as the military and the war in Iraq) that are traditionally backed by the Bush administration and Republicans. The Labor-HHS-Education bill that was vetoed proposed spending on domestic programs like special education for children with disabilities, cancer research and low-income heating aid. Typical fare of the Democrats.

The 2007 Defense bill contained $422 billion in discretionary spending, well below the $460 billion 2008 Defense bill Bush signed on Tuesday. In contrast, The Labor-HHS bill that Bush vetoed contained $150 in discretionary spending, only about $8 billion above what he approved in last year’s bill.

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-WI) summed it up well, even if his numbers seem off by a billion or two. (subscription-only CongressDaily):

>"You’re taking his actions too seriously. They are not logical, substantive objections," he said, adding that Bush quietly signed the Defense bill so as not to draw attention to it. “Anytime that you sign a $39 billion increase in one bill and then pretend you’re saving the Republic by blocking $6 billion in another, it shows you the whole operation is phony,” Obey said.

As a reminder, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has been insisting for months that, after adjusting for inflation and population growth, the spending bills Bush is willing to accept are higher than their average counterparts from when the Republicans controlled Congress from 2002-2006, while the ones he plans to veto actual spend significantly less. Here’s the graph:

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