Forget Tea Leaves: Read Congress's Bills to Forecast Future Deficits

     Last week White House officials announced that the current year’s budget deficit estimate had shrunk by more than 25 percent, to $296 billion. The fiscal picture has brightened due to a surge in revenues from the ongoing economic expansion, which itself was fueled by income and investment tax cuts. This positive development shouldn’t be surprising, even to critics of the Bush administration. After all, federal receipts grew faster after John F. Kennedy’s proposed income tax reductions took effect, while capital gains tax cuts enacted under Bill Clinton preceded a stock-market boom.

     But what does the fiscal future hold for progress on the deficit? Some say it’s impossible to tell, but a unique database called BillTally can provide many solid clues. Developed by the National Taxpayers Union Foundation in 1991, BillTally tracks the cost of every piece of spending legislation introduced in Congress and matches it with sponsorship records of individual lawmakers. It gives us an idea of what would happen to federal spending if every item on a given congressman’s legislative agenda became law tomorrow.

     Why does this measurement matter? Unlike floor votes, sponsorship of bills is free from the influence of party leaders and committees. It represents the purest form of pressure that members of Congress exert on the budget. Although most legislation doesn’t immediately become law, the policies can become raw material for future bills, and high levels of sponsorship on a given proposal indicate where more federal dollars may soon go.

     The latest BillTally findings (encompassing nearly 1,500 bills from 2005) illustrate just how lopsided the budget process has become. Last year House members introduced 17 bills to raise spending for every bill to cut it; in the Senate, the ratio was 31 to 1. Incredibly, this represents an improvement in fiscal discipline from the last Congress (2003), when the House and Senate ratios were 23 to 1 and 32 to 1, respectively.

     The dollar amounts behind these figures are daunting. The typical House Republican proposed to boost the federal budget by a net of $11.6 billion in one year, while the year’s average for a Democrat was $547.4 billion. On the Senate side, the partisan gap was smaller – $11.4 billion per Republican and $52.1 billion per Democrat.

     Not all lawmakers proposed to spend as much as these averages, and their ranks are growing. A total of 49 representatives and senators sponsored bills in 2005 with a cumulative effect that would actually reduce federal outlays – many more than the 16 brave souls who could claim the title of “spending cutter” in 2003.

     There’s also a sign of restraint on the other end of the scale. The number of senators and representatives backing increases in federal spending of $100 billion or more has gone down, from more than 150 in 2003 to 90 last year.

     Taxpayers’ eyes often glaze over when looking at so many zeroes, so it helps to put the combined work product of Congress in another perspective. If every one of the House’s spending bills introduced in 2005 became law – excluding overlapping proposals – the average extra tax or debt load would amount to nearly $25,000 for each household in America per year. The Senate would let us off more lightly, at a little less than $4,000 apiece.

     Clearly, lawmakers still have a long way to go before they return to the disciplined days of the 104th Congress (right after the GOP takeover). Back then, Republicans and Democrats in both chambers had average BillTally agendas to drive spending downward, while the rate of introduction for spending hikes versus spending cuts was nearly even.

     Where is the leadership to restore some balance to federal budgeting? Two fiscally conservative caucuses in Congress, the Republican Study Committee and the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, may be part of the solution. House members participating in these groups had far smaller spending agendas than their respective parties’ colleagues.

     As incumbent lawmakers prepare to hit the campaign trail this fall, taxpayers will no doubt be treated to a litany of reasons why Washington is still mired in red ink. But as these numbers show, a flow of costly ideas from lawmakers’ own pens is partially to blame.

Demian Brady is Senior Policy Analyst and BillTally Project Manager for the National Taxpayers Union Foundation (, the research and educational arm of the 350,000-member National Taxpayers Union. John Berthoud, president of the National Taxpayers Union, is an adviser to the Business & Media Institute.