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ON BUDGET, SKY'S THE LIMIT

D.C. Democrats are now pushing for a new $300-billion stimulus package. Earlier this month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had been talking up a $150-billion stimulus package. Apparently the cost of stimulation is rising, and fast.

Do I hear $450-billion?

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's rescue plan also grew from $60-billion to $175-billion. Republican presidential candidate John McCain's stimulus package is holding steady at $52-billion - which makes it seem, well, almost quaint.

If passed, the new Son of Stimulus package will follow on the heels of the $700-billion bank bailout, $110-billion of sweeteners added onto the first bailout, and February's $168-billion stimulus package, which did not deliver much stimulus.

Is there an end in sight? If you are looking for an inkling that fiscal restraint is out there somewhere, the signs are not good.

You may recall, two short years ago, Democrats promised that if they were in charge of Congress, they would restore pay-as-you-go (also known as pay-go) budget rules, which require Congress to pay for new spending either by cutting other spending or increasing taxes. In January, newly installed Speaker Pelosi proudly trumpeted new pay-go rules in the House.

Pay-go is still on the books, but the rule has become more of a fictional device than accounting tool.

The Senate vote to add $110-billion in tax cuts to the Bush-proposed $700-billion bailout plan bypassed pay-go.

Together both Houses have gimmicks and trickery to bypass pay-go to pass a measure to prevent the Alternative Minimum Tax from dinging middle-class taxpayers, to approve a pork-fest of a farm bill, to push through the energy bill and more.

According to Steve Ellis, spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense, Democrats don't like the fact that pay-go makes it harder for them to propose new spending, while Republicans like the idea of pay-go - until they're asked to forgo tax cuts. So both parties have a stake in ditching pay-go.

Brian M. Riedl, an economist with the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, agrees. As he sees it, pay-go makes Congress offset tax cuts, if they are extended, but not spending programs that are extended. "The idea that pay-go means fiscal responsibility is ridiculous."

In that Washington's spending spree has continued unabated under pay-go, Riedl has a point.

Democrats can argue - rightly - that the binge started before Democrats took over Congress. As Riedl noted in a Heritage backgrounder last October, "nondefense discretionary spending has expanded nearly twice as fast under President Bush as under President Clinton." But by last October, Democratshad "used their majority to increase discretionary spending even faster."

And that was before the bailout.

Maybe pay-go isn't such a great deal for conservatives, who see it as a trigger for raising taxes, but not cutting spending. On the other hand, if Congress cannot find ways to offset new spending in a $3-trillion budget, then there is no ceiling on what Washington will spend.

Ellis noted, "Every time you ignore pay-go, or you do an end run around it, you reduce its credibility and effectiveness in the future. Eventually, it will become a laughingstock. It's getting close."

Surely it must be better to have the semblance of restraint than no pretense whatsoever.

In that sense, pay-go may be similar to earmarks. At the last debate, Obama pointed out that, "Earmarks account for 0.5 percent of the total federal budget" - or $18.3-billion in 2008, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. Ergo, Obama argued, eliminating earmarks is "not going to solve the problem."

But if Washington can't cut fat targets like earmarks, then Washington will never get a hold on runaway spending. And if Congress can't legislate within the pay-go rules, then it's a go-cart with no brakes.

Do I hear $450-billion?

©Creators Syndicate Inc.

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