GOP sinking in fiscal woes sends an SOS

Freedom Newspapers

I t may be too late for Republicans to restore their lost luster as the party of fiscal responsibility, at least in time to prevent a drubbing in the coming elections. But at least some of them are trying.

A few senators are pushing the SOS bill, the Stop Overspending Act of 2006, which attempts to make repairs to a badly broken budget process and curb unchecked congressional spending.

We don’t have a lot of faith that the effort will go very far, or save the GOP’s lost souls, but we think the plan has merit, nonetheless.

SOS is basically a repackaging of budget reform ideas that have been around for years, but that doesn’t mean they won’t or couldn’t work. There’s a line-item veto-like authority for the president, for instance, which bill backers believe will survive judicial review. President Bush seems to have a phobia of the veto pen, but perhaps another chief executive, at another place and time, would make good use of a mechanism that permits him or her to veto certain provisions of catch-all spending bills.

A line-item veto approved during the Clinton years was itself vetoed — by federal judges. This authority would have to be fairly specific and limited to pass judicial muster without a constitutional amendment.

SOS also includes what backers describe as a “Gramm-Rudmanesque” rate-of-growth cap on discretionary federal spending. The aim is a balanced budget by 2012. We hate to think that such mechanisms are required to force Congress to live within its means, but if that’s what it takes, and that’s what we’ve come to as a country, it’s probably worth a try. Or a re-try, in this case.

The bill attempts to curb the widely abused practice of misusing “emergency” supplementals to go on spending sprees. In recent years, such emergency bills have accounted for 20 percent of discretionary federal spending, as the president and members of Congress lard the bills with all kinds of nonemergency extras. SOS attempts to put that spending back “on the books.”

The bill would also create two new commissions; one to study a solution to the impending “entitlement crises” and one to study the redundancy and inefficiency of federal programs, which is one of the weakest components of this particular reform package. We’re never keen on the creation of new commissions and task force. Such moves are usually a shoddy substitute for taking real action.

And the subjects of entitlement spending and wasteful government programs have already been studied to death. What’s been lacking is the political courage in Congress to do something about them. And we don’t see any provision of SOS, sadly, that will fortify the Jell-o-like spines of most members of Congress.

Another old but still sensible idea that’s been dusted off is semi-annual budgeting, which would mean Congress could spend less time fighting and intriguing over spending bills and more on fulfilling its oversight responsibilities. That’s the theory, anyway. More oversight would gladly be welcome. But the pork-barrel bacchanal we now see annually could easily continue, even if every other year. And it might even get worse, as members try to cram two years worth of plundering into one.

The budget process is broken and in desperate need of a reform. The Stop Overspending Act could restore fiscal discipline and accountability to Washington.

Perhaps. If it passes. Which is about as likely as a flock of cows flying over the Capitol dome.

This a worthwhile but belated effort by some of the GOP’s remaining fiscal conservatives to rehabilitate the party’s reputation for frugality in time to avert a potential electoral disaster this November. In that sense, it truly is an SOS. But like those that were sent out by the Titanic, it tragically comes too late.