Congress may have amnesia. Little more than five weeks have passed since the election, and the Senate is preparing the biggest pork feast this side of the Mississippi.
We're talking some serious BBQ folks: the 1,924 page omnibus bill has 6,000 earmarks in it. I've been told by sources that "Uncle Harry" is pushing them to pass this pig-packed bill before the end of the year, some anticipating to stay this weekend in order to do it. Interesting how some members who fought tooth and nail for their jobs in November are about to spit in the face of their constituents who voted for a more fiscally responsible Congress. I wonder if any of the newly anointed "fiscal conservatives" will vote yes on this bill.
One of the Senators leading the charge to change Uncle Sam's free spending ways is Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), a member of the Banking Committee. On Wednesday, the Senator along with Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) introduced an Amendment to cap federal spending as a percentage of GDP. I decided to talk to Corker about the budget appropriation bill.
BC: The appropriations bill we are looking at is really twelve bills. In other words, there are twelve sections to a normal appropriations process and the way that you want to deal with those is one bill at a time. What you do is you bring the bill to the floor and you spend a week on each one of those. Let me repeat: you spend a week on each bill. In some cases, you might be able to get two or three together if the sections are small. That would be called a "Minibus." But to do all twelve of these 1,924 pages as quickly as we can with six thousand earmarks in it, it is absolutely unbelievable to me. Its bad government. I can not believe after this election with all the signals that were send to Congress that we can even consider something like this. I am amazed and unfortunately there are some Republicans that are considering supporting it. So we are trying to do everything we can to persuade them that this is the wrong thing to do.
LL: This bill is generating a lot of disappointment and anger. Is it too early to be hearing from your constituents?
BC: It's a little early. People like you and others are making people aware of this. I would imagine that out of all the issues we talked about this Lame Duck session of Congress nothing will infuriate voters more than this omnibus and if this passes, I can't imagine anything helping creating distrust amongst voters than this. Unfortunately, we have 57, 58 votes on this other side of the aisle and Reid probably feels confident that he can pass it. We have some appropriators who are retiring and maybe some appropriators on the Republican side that really think this is the thing they need to do. The problem with it is we need to move quickly to cut spending.
This tax bill was a really tough vote for me; really tough. Considering how fragile the economy is, and the uncertainty that exists—it was the right thing to do to get this done and out of the way and in support of it. But I expected when we got back to Congress at the start of the New Year we would start to reduce spending. And what this omnibus would do is put spending in place for twelve months and we would not have the ability to dive in and begin to make cuts. And even if we had that ability, the ability to do it is much reduced because people know there is a funding stream for the rest of the year and they really don't take it as seriously. Its the wrong thing to do from the standpoint in running our government. But from the standpoint to how this looks to the American people- this appears to be so egregious and I think it is by the way, I just can not believe this would be done after what happened after this election.
LL: Are the Democrats trying to ram this through?
BC: I think they feel they have a list of stuff they think they can get done while they still have 57 members and I do think they are trying to do as much as they can. They know the dynamic of Congress is going to change next year. We all know next year nothing like this would ever come out of the House.
For PayGo to pass you need both Houses to pass. So yes—I think they are trying to get as much passed by the end of this year. My guess a lot of promises have been made when it comes to special project funding as it relates to this bill. And now for some of the people leaving its their swan song, I'm sure there is some legacy building in this bill, in my opinion. It is totally inappropriate for us to be doing anything like this. This whole scheme just started a few weeks ago.
I think all of us thought if we were going to do anything dealing with spending it would be a continuing resolution. A continuing resolution doesn't raise the amount being spent. You continue at the same level. I didn't support last year's level of spending and I certainly would not support a long term continuing resolution that took us all the way through next year. But many of us thought the default position would be a short term continuing resolution. But this just floated up during lunch a few weeks ago. We kind of got aware by watching the body language if you will and again this is probably the biggest shock in the Lame Duck Session that something this egregious would come to the floor.
LL: If this does come to the floor and it passes, which it looks like it will, can the President intervene?
BC: He won't. I don't think he will. Unfortunately, I support the President having a line-item veto and what I would love to see him do is veto it and send it back saying strip out all the earmarks. The earmarks by the way are not really cost items. It doesn't add to the cost of the bill, but it does get people so excited to pass a bill. The President has publicly said he supports eliminating earmarks and he should candidly say I'm sorry there are six thousand earmarks in this bill and this is not what our country wants to see at this time so I'm going to veto it.
LL: But do you think the President has the political courage to do it?
BC: I don't think he will. I think folks who work with him on his side of the aisle would feel it would be an act of betrayal and I doubt it would occur.
LL: You will be leading the charge in curbing Congressional spending. You introduced a new Amendment called the Cap Act. What steps are needed for Congress to cut spending?
BC: We have a debt ceiling vote in late May or June and there will be a need to raise the debt ceiling. But before that, we need to construct a plan to reduce spending. I think the first thing we need to do is take up some of the proposals from the deficit commission. There has to be some proposals that both Democrats and Republicans agree to and I would like to vote on those and take action.
The second part would be the Amendment Senator McCaskill co-sponsored with me. When you start looking at our spending versus our economic outlook a light bulb goes off. You can see more clearly than any other way how far off our spending is. Right now, our spending is 24 percent of GDP and over the next ten years with the Amendment, we would take it down to 20.6 percent GDP in federal spending. It doesn't sound like much, but you are talking trillions of dollars in cuts. You are talking draconian steps that have to be put in place to have that occur. If we didn't make those cuts, the bill would automatically take the monies out of the various government accounts to get to those levels.
The Cap Act has teeth in it. It takes a 67 vote over ride to not live by the construct of this bill. This is a plan. One of the things we don't do in this country is decide where are we going. We don't ask ourselves, "What is the plan?" "Where are we going?" Instead we do these one year things like this omnibus bill. So the Cap Act would give Congress a construct to follow. It would force us to make the cuts we need to take.
This is one of the few issues that is solely in Congress' hands. When you deal with terrorism there are a lot of complicated issues. This is solely in our hands. We are the ones who appropriate our money, we're the ones who can make the cuts, its solely within our control and that is something we need to face front and center. This is not someone else's problem, this is ours. Act like adults and have the courage to deal with it.
LL: What's your outlook on the Amendment?
BC: I know its not going to pass this Lame Duck session. What we are doing now is not put it up for a vote because I don't want people on the other side of the aisle to harden against it. When people vote negative on something that normally continues on. So we are using this Lame Duck session to build awareness. This is one of those things you have to explain and educate. This is such a radical departure from where we are that I want to build some momentum towards it.
So we offered it as an amendment to the tax bill. We can talk about it which we did. We will offer it as an amendment to the omnibus again just so we can talk about it. We are shopping it around to the various Senate offices, we're talking to various House members about it. I hope sometime this Spring either we will vote on some of these bold Draconian moves by the deficit reduction commission or put in a place a construct like you and I are talking about.
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A Senior Talent Producer at CNBC, and author of "Thriving in the New Economy:Lessons from Today's Top Business Minds."