For a member of Congress, it's generally a lot easier politically to say yes to spending proposals than to say no.
Even the most obscure programs and seemingly indefensible pork-barrel projects have well-organized, vocal defenders, who pepper Capitol Hill with letters, phone calls, lobbying visits, paid advertising and more. The taxpayer, on the other hand, is busy earning a living, and has little time to stand up in the name of fiscal restraint and lobby Congress simply for the right to be able to keep more of what he or she earns. With the debate often distorted by this imbalance, even fiscal conservatives - regardless of party - face serious pressure to bend their principles and support programs which, after all, do some good. That's how we end up with, for example, museum funding in a bill ostensibly dedicated to highway construction.
Fortunately, there are a handful of non-profit groups that run against the grain of special interests by dedicating themselves to serve as watchdogs of government spending. They provide support for those of us who came to Washington to try to keep a lid on government spending, and shine a bright spotlight of accountability on free-spenders.
One of the most prominent of these groups is Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), a non-partisan organization with more than one million members and supporters nationwide. In addition to its famous "Congressional Pig Book" of pork-barrel projects, CAGW annually rates members of Congress on their spending records on a scale of 1 to 100. With a score of 94 last year, I'm proud to have received their top rating in the Senate, and the title of "taxpayer hero."
Two recent votes illustrate the basis for CAGW's ratings. I was one of a handful of Senators to vote against the $286 billion highway bill in July. Despite many worthwhile elements, on the whole the bill was fiscally irresponsible, packed with thousands of pork-barrel "earmarks" by individual senators. At the same time, it was unfair to Arizona, which will receive just over 91 cents back for every dollar we send to Washington in gas taxes.
I also voted against the massive energy bill, because it was laden with provisions that will distort competitive markets for energy through various subsidies, tax breaks, loan guarantees, special projects, mandates and outlandish amounts of federal spending. Groups like CAGW have estimated that this bill alone will cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars. Both bills passed overwhelmingly, however, too full of goodies for most of my colleagues to resist.
Now we're looking for ways to offset some of the spending required to recover from hurricanes Rita and Katrina. There are those who believe that focusing on fiscal responsibility in the aftermath of a natural disaster indicates a lack of compassion, but I believe the opposite is true. A personal tragedy, like a flood or fire, causes families to look for ways to save money before going heavily into debt to rebuild - for example, by cutting back on lower priority spending. So too should the federal government. A good place to start would be to defer some lower priority highway bill projects and apply the money to rebuilding the Gulf Coast. You don't have to be a Taxpayer's Hero to figure that out.
Senator Kyl serves on the Senate Finance and Judiciary committees and chairs the Senate Republican Policy Committee.