September 6, 1996
by Karen Lightfoot and Robert Greenstein
A National Taxpayers Union Foundation report released today claims that nearly all Members of
Congress all Senators and 383 of the 434 Members of the House voted to increase
spending during the 104th Congress. But analysis of the NTUF's own data shows that in fact, all
Senators and Representatives voted to decrease spending, not to raise it.
Under federal law, costs for federal entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare automatically rise from year to year. This is due to several factors, including: statutory cost-of-living adjustments in Social Security benefits, veterans benefits, and benefits for certain other programs to keep them even with inflation; increases each year in the number of elderly people in the United States and therefore in the number of Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries; and an increase in hospital charges for medical treatments due to health care cost inflation. The NTUF treats these automatic increases in costs due to inflation and demographic factors as increases in spending for which all Members of Congress voted, despite the fact that no such votes occurred. When this flaw in the NTUF methodology is corrected and the automatic cost increases for which no votes were cast are removed from the tally all Members of Congress are found to have voted to lower overall spending during the past two years. (See tables at the end of this analysis.)
This aspect of the NTUF methodology is likely to create misleading impressions, since the NTUF press release and analysis do not make clear this aspect of the NTUF methodology. One must read a detailed methodological appendix to grasp this aspect of the NTUF approach.
As a result, many constituents hearing their Senator or Representative "voted" to increase spending $60 billion will not understand their Member actually voted to reduce spending $46 billion but was charged by NTUF with voting for $106 billion of increases that occurred automatically due to such developments as the Social Security cost-of-living adjustment, medical price inflation, and the aging of the population.
The NTUF tally also has some other shortcomings. While the NTUF claims to have included votes through July 18, it cut off Senate votes on July 10, thereby missing votes between July 10 and July 18 on the welfare bill. As a result, votes that some Senators cast to reduce spending are omitted.
The NTUF also counts votes to authorize various non-entitlement programs as votes to increase spending even though authorization bills cause no spending to occur. Only appropriations bills do that.
Entitlement Treatment Makes Members Who Voted to Reduce
Spending Appear to Have Voted to Increase Spending
The NTUF report charges Members of Congress as having voted for increases in entitlement spending that occurred automatically. The cost of federal entitlement programs will automatically rise $106 billion between fiscal years 1995 and 1997 due to factors such as annual cost-of living adjustments in Social Security and other benefits, the increase in the number of Americans reaching the age at which they qualify for Social Security and Medicare, and normal year-to-year increases in doctor and hospital fees. No Members voted on such increases in expenditures, which result automatically from existing law.
The NTUF charges all Members of Congress, however, with voting for these increases in entitlement spending. The NTUF mingles this automatic increase in entitlement costs with actual votes that Members made to increase or decrease spending. This has the effect of making it appear that most Members voted to increase spending simply because they did not vote to cancel Social Security cost-of-living adjustments, deny Medicare benefits to those newly turning 65, or make other cuts yielding equivalent savings. This distorts and diminishes the value of the NTUF tally.
When the automatic increases in entitlement costs for which Members did not vote are put to the side, every Member of Congress, regardless of party, is found to have voted to cut spending during the 104th Congress. This is shown in the attached tables.
On a related front, five Members of Congress were sworn in during the 2nd session of the 104th Congress. Four of these new members were Democrats, while one was a Republican. All four of the new Democratic Members were charged with a full year of automatic increases in entitlement spending ($57 billion) even though some of them have been in the Congress for only a fraction of the year. For example, Rep. Earl Blumenauer is charged with voting for this additional $57 billion in spending; he has been in Congress only since June. (The one new member who was a Republican was not included in the NTUF tally. The reason given is that this member, Senator Sheila Frahm, lost her primary. Other Members of Congress who lost primaries this year, however, were not excluded.)
Exclusion of Welfare Votes Affects Records of Some Senators
While the NTUF report on the House of Representative includes votes through July 18, the Senate report contains votes only through July 10. Therefore, the analysis does not include votes the Senate cast this year on the welfare bill.
Among the welfare votes omitted are those cast on the Senate floor between July 10 and July 18, the date through which the report claims to cover votes. Omission of these votes inequitably affects some Senators, all Democrats, who voted for a Democratic welfare substitute bill on July 18 that would have reduced spending. The combined effect of the NTUF's treatment of automatic increases in entitlement costs and its lack of inclusion of the Senate welfare votes substantially alters the voting records of some Members of Congress.
The NTUF scores Senator Paul Wellstone as voting to increase spending $76 billion during
the 104th Congress. When automatic entitlement growth is removed and Wellstone's vote on
July 18 for the Democratic welfare bill is counted, his tally shows he voted to cut spending
The NTUF charges Senator Thad Cochran with voting to increase spending $24 billion.
When the automatic increase in federal entitlement costs is removed, his tally shows he voted
to decrease spending $82 billion. 1
NTUF Exaggerates Size of Some Spending Cuts and Inaccurately Treats Some Votes
While the NTUF charges Members with automatic cost increases for which they did not cast votes, it gives some Members more credit than they are due for reducing spending because of mistakes made in counting votes for certain bills. The NTUF also incorrectly charges some Members with votes to increase spending because of its treatment of authorization bills.
The NTUF overstates the cuts in the FY 1996 and FY 1997 agriculture appropriations bills
due to errors involving farm price supports. NTUF's accounting rules dictate that only
changes in discretionary spending in appropriations bills be counted when appropriations
bills are scored. Entitlement spending funded in appropriations bills such as funding for
Medicaid, farm price supports, veterans' pensions, and school lunches is not supposed to
be counted in the appropriations area. This is because a Member's vote on an appropriation
bill has no effect on the costs of the entitlement programs in the bill.
Despite this sensible rule, the NTUF shows the fiscal year 1996 and fiscal year 1997 agriculture appropriations bills as decreasing spending by $4.8 billion and $11 billion, respectively, and counts votes for these bills as votes to decrease spending by these amounts. Most of these decreases, however, resulted from entitlement spending decreases of $5.1 billion and $8.9 billion, respectively, required under federal law to restore losses in the accounts of the Commodity Credit Corporation, the federal agency that pays farm price support subsidies and disposes of surplus agricultural commodities. The fluctuations in spending for the CCC result not from a Member's vote on the agricultural appropriation bill but from factors such as the weather and farm prices. This appears to be an inadvertent, but significant, error in the NTUF tally.
Other problems stem from the fact that NTUF counts votes for authorization bills for
discretionary programs as votes to increase or decrease spending even though these
authorization bills do not cause discretionary spending to increase or decrease. Only the
discretionary spending caps and appropriations bills do that.
Authorization bills are substantive pieces of legislation that provide the basic design for an agency or program, setting forth its purpose and guidelines. While these bills usually set an upward limit on the amount that may be appropriated for a program, Congress typically appropriates less than the maximum levels the authorization bills allow.
A vote to authorize a program is essentially a vote to allow it to compete with other non-entitlement programs for the limited funding available under the discretionary spending caps and the allocations the budget resolution provides for appropriations bills. By counting changes in authorization ceilings and classifying them as votes to increase or decrease spending the NTUF incorrectly charges Members with having voted to spend billions of dollars that will never be appropriated or expended.
Largest Deficit Reduction Plan Not Given Appropriate Credit
While the NTUF sometimes presents its vote tally as a measure of fiscal responsibility, the NTUF ignores some votes that would reduce or enlarge the deficit. Specifically, the NTUF does not count votes to increase or decrease government subsidies provided through the tax code, which many experts, the General Accounting Office, the Joint Tax Committee, and individuals such as Alan Greenspan have called "tax expenditures." If a member votes to cut health programs to fund a corporate tax subsidy without reducing the deficit, the NTUF rates the member as voting to cut spending. A member who votes against such a measure does less well in the NTUF rankings. In addition, votes to reduce or increase "corporate welfare" subsidies provided through the tax code are ignored.
This approach adversely affects the rankings of a substantial number of House and Senate members who voted for the "Coalition" budget. The Coalition budget, developed by a group of deficit-conscious House Democrats and endorsed by the Concord Coalition, reduced the deficit more than the Republican reconciliation bill. While the Republican budget plan cut programs more, it also contained large tax cuts, including expansion of a number of corporate and individual tax expenditures. By contrast, the Coalition budget contained no tax cuts and reduced some tax corporate tax subsidies. Although the Coalition budget reduced the deficit more, members voting for it fare less well in the NTUF rankings than members voting for the Republican budget. 2
1. The lack of inclusion of the welfare votes in July affects six Senators. Cochran is not one of those affected, all of whom are Democrats.
2. This approach is nevertheless far superior than that followed by the NTUF's sister organization, the National Taxpayers Union. That organization gives no credit whatsoever to Members who voted for the Coalition budget and rewards Members for voting against that budget.
Table: House of Representatives Report 149K
Table: Senate Report 34K