Kent Conrad and Fiscal Federalism

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Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) has a reputation for being a “deficit hawk.” But the bar is apparently so low in Washington that merely paying lip service to “fiscal responsibility” is enough to earn you the hawk title in the press. In reality, Conrad is a tax and spender as a story in today’s Wall Street Journal demonstrates.   

These examples illustrate Sen. Deficit Hawk’s commitment to deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility: 

  • “Like many in Congress, he is conflicted. He boasts a 23-year record of looking after North Dakota voters with ample farm subsidies, aid for drought-hit ranchers, defense spending and scores of pet projects. He has done little to help rein in Medicare and Social Security expenses—the U.S.’s biggest budget busters.” 
  • “He has been a defender of the state’s grain farmers ever since [his election to the Senate in 1986]. He voted last April against a proposal to cap federal payments to the nation’s farmers at $250,000 per farmer per year, a measure that Mr. Conrad criticized as disastrous but that supporters said would have saved $1 billion a year.” 
  • “He also helped draft a five-year, $300 billion farm bill in 2008 that boosted overall farm subsidies. The bill created a $3.8 billion emergency ‘trust fund’ for farmers who lose crops or livestock to natural disasters, which was Mr. Conrad’s idea. Since 2008, North Dakota ranchers have received $23 million under the fund, second only to Texas.” 
  • “Mr. Conrad also has used legislative earmarks—provisions inserted into bills by lawmakers to fund local projects—to deliver federal money to North Dakota businesses, cities and schools. He secured $3 million last year to build a new terminal at the Grand Forks airport, and $13 million more for a fire station at a nearby air base. Dickinson State University got $600,000 to build a Theodore Roosevelt Center, while a Navy research project got $1.2 million to develop a ‘chafing protection system.’” 
  • “In 2003, Mr. Conrad joined most Democratic senators to support Mr. Bush’s plan to provide Medicare prescription-drug coverage to seniors, at a cost of around $40 billion a year. The plan required Congress to scrap the spending controls Mr. Conrad once championed. Republicans won the votes of Mr. Conrad and other rural senators by agreeing to expand the program by pumping $25 billion more into rural hospitals and doctors over 10 years.” 
  • “Mr. Conrad helped negotiate the 2005 highway bill, which critics blasted as a bipartisan exercise in spending excess. The $286 billion bill contained 6,371 earmarks. Even before Mr. Bush signed it, Mr. Conrad told constituents that the bill would deliver $1.5 billion to North Dakota communities. ‘That equates to North Dakota receiving $2 for every $1 in gas tax collected in the state,’ Mr. Conrad said in a news release.” 
It would appear that Conrad doesn’t really want to cut spending to reign in deficits. He wants to increase taxes. One might think a proponent of tax increases in a red state like North Dakota would struggle at the ballot box. However, the WSJ article cites Tax Foundation data showing that North Dakota receives $1.68 in federal spending for every $1 it sends to Washington in taxes. In other words, Conrad’s tax increases would allow him to buy more votes at the expense of taxpayers in other states. A North Dakotan is quoted as saying, “The joke here is that we elect conservatives to state office because we don’t want them to spend our money, and liberals to national office because we want them to spend other people’s money.” 

This is a precisely why a return to fiscal federalism is crucial to getting spending-driven deficits under control. In the meantime, let’s stop calling politicians who want to spend more money and increase taxes to pay for it “deficit hawks” or “fiscally responsible.”