Term-limiting federal spending

By Greg Kaza
web posted June 5, 2000

The federal government will spend more tax dollars this year than at any time in U.S. history. The executive and legislative branches supported discretionary spending increases that broke the FY 2000 spending caps and express little interest in reversing this trend. Americans must work more days than ever before to pay for Washington's wasteful spending before they are able to spend their hard-earned paychecks on themselves or their families. Public records reveal, however, that a small caucus of term-limited legislators have attempted to cut federal spending more than any other group of Capitol Hill lawmakers. Their tactic? Challenging the Republican House leadership during the 106th Congress by sponsoring amendments to cut appropriation bills. The group includes retiring members Dr. Tom Coburn, R-OK., and Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C. Both mavericks, Coburn and Sanford are leaving Congress at the end of 2000 to comply with voluntary term limits pledges they made in 1994.

There were 611 roll-call votes in the U.S. House of Representatives last year, public records show. A total of 99 roll-call votes occurred on House amendments to appropriation bills. Twenty amendments proposed specific spending cuts. Term-limited citizen legislators sponsored 75 percent (15) of the 20 amendments while five were sponsored by members who have not limited their terms. Only one senior House member sponsored a roll-call amendment to cut spending, in June 1999, after Coburn and Sanford sponsored 10 amendments to slash the same budget (Agriculture, Rural Development, Food & Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations, FY 2000).

Many of the other 79 amendments to budget bills sought to prohibit an activity, while others increased spending or create spending increases and reductions that were offsetting, public records show. The Republican-controlled House passed more amendments to increase federal spending than measures to cut waste.

Dr. Coburn, in his third and final term, has emerged as Congress' champion budget hawk. The Muskogee Republican sponsored amendments proposing an across-the-board cut of all FY 2000 defense discretionary spending (roll call #117: Emergency Supplemental Kosovo & Southwest Asia Appropriations Act, FY 1999); a $2.7 billion funding cut for the decennial census (roll call #374); and more than $55 million in spending cuts for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (roll call #'s 152-54, 156-59 and 161). Coburn's action on the Ag budget is noteworthy considering that he represents a rural eastern Oklahoma district, including many farmers.

Elected in 1994, Coburn's tactics frequently place him at odds with the Republican House leadership. He has criticized GOP leaders for not having "a plan of action" during negotiations with the executive branch. Late last year, Coburn successfully shamed his colleagues into killing a provision renaming the Centers for Disease Control and the National Library of Medicine after two incumbent members of the U.S. Senate--Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Arlen Specter, R-PA. (World Net Daily, Jan. 8, 2000) "We have reached a new low in Washington's culture of arrogance when federal agencies and their headquarters are renamed in honor of the career politicians who control their budgets," Coburn said.

Sanford was the only congressman to vote recently (roll call # 141 of 2000) against renaming the U.S. Border Station located in Pharr, Texas, as "the Kika de la Garza U.S. Border Station." (Coburn was did not vote.) De la Garza, a career politician, served more than a decade in the Texas legislature and 32 years in the U.S. House before retiring in 1996. The measure passed, 417-1.

An amendment sponsored by Sanford to the State Department budget in July 1999 (roll call #313) sought to cut funding for the Dante B. Fascell North-South Center in Miami, Fla., the East-West Center and the Asia Foundation. Fascell served 38 years in Congress from 1955 to 1993.

Sanford came to Congress from Wall Street; only Coburn has sponsored more amendments this session to cut spending. The term limits duo teamed up late last year to kill a $31 million pork-barrel project for the "Howard Baker School of Government," the "John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy," the "Paul Simon Public Policy Institute," and the "Robert T. Stafford Public Policy Institute." Baker (R-TN.), Glenn (D-OH.), Simon (D-ILL.) and Stafford (R-VT.) are all retired U.S. senators.

Sanford calls term limits "the key to a representative Congress." He said, "In the stock market, risk is defined as a "beta" - the higher the risk, the higher the beta. Term limits ... or anything else that changes the duration in office does not make better legislators - it changes the beta (risk) in any given legislative decision. This is important because this change in perspective - the ability to say no to leadership or to take on seemingly dangerous political issues - gives a person the rarest of Washington commodities: Independence."

Another member of the term limits caucus, freshman Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-CO., also sponsored one of the 15 amendments, records show. Other retiring members of the group include representatives Helen Chenoweth, R-ID.; Jack Metcalf, R-WA.; and Matt Salmon, R-AZ. All are keeping their term limits pledges.

Public records show only three percent of the amendments sponsored last year in the U.S. House proposed cuts in federal spending. This is a sobering fact given Washington rhetoric about "downsizing government" and "eliminating waste." Term limits proponents are fighting the good fight on an issue that few on Capitol Hill have the courage to tackle.

Greg Kaza is executive director of the Citizen Legislators Caucus Foundation, an educational/public policy group.

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