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Tightening Government's Belt


The Gazette

November 11, 2005

"[T]he indoor rain forest in Coralville . . . is frequently cited and ridiculed as an example of wasteful spending . . .."
[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Gazette.]

    Anyone who needs an example of why it is so difficult for Congress to control spending need look no further than the budget battle in progress.

    We must grit our teeth, endure the pain and cut the budget, say both Democrats and Republicans . . . but not MY project.

    One exception came this week, and perhaps can serve as an example for more such behavior. Congress has given notice to the group backing the indoor rain forest in Coralville that its $50 million appropriation will be delivered only if and when the group raises most of the project’s $180 million cost privately. It is only a drop in a very large federal budget bucket, but the move has symbolic importance. The project is frequently cited and ridiculed as an example of wasteful spending, and it was strongly backed by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Grassley is taking a lead role in the federal budget economizing.

    It is a daunting job. Republican leaders in the U.S. House face a major challenge trying to pass a bill reducing projected spending by $54 billion over five years. A more modest $35 billion cut has been approved in the Senate, but although it touched some sensitive areas, it did not make changes in areas considered sacrosanct to many, such as transfer payments and Medicaid. The House version does.

    That will bring out the special interest groups, such as AARP, which is urging its members to resist changes to Medicaid. It also has sparked internal problems. Florida Republicans, for example, do not like the idea of permitting offshore oil drilling, while those in Wisconsin want the House bill to extend subsidies for the dairy industry. The leadership bowed to pressure from moderates this week by removing a provision that opened the way for oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

    It still seems unlikely the $54 billion reduction will make it to the president’s desk. To put that failure in perspective, consider that although $54 billion is an almost incomprehensible amount of money, it is less than one half of 1 percent of what the federal government is expected to spend during the period.

    In other words, Congress is grappling mightily, and probably unsuccessfully, with the task of reducing spending by the equivalent of what would be about $5 per week for a middle-income family. That’s the challenge budget-cutters face.

    The situation is not solely due to profligacy, greed, waste, the Iraq war or other commonly cited ills. Not all the expenditures can stand an objective cost-benefit test, but most of them probably can. Reducing, delaying or eliminating them would cause someone pain somewhere in the country. Without pain, there can be no significant economizing, yet members of Congress for the most part see their jobs as dependent upon making sure their constituents are not the ones who suffer.

    Across-the-board cuts would duck that issue by relieving politicians of tough decisions. Such cuts are poor governance, though, as they eliminate the good projects as well as the bad, the necessary as well as the optional. As noted in this space earlier, a proposal suggested by Grassley to get rid of ‘‘earmarked’’ funds has promise.

    Most of all, Americans must decide and express through their votes whether they really want to accept the pain of reining in spending. We can do our part here in Iowa to show the way. It is trite but true: There is no such thing as a free lunch.