By MARSHA MERCER
MEDIA GENERAL NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON -- Whatever happened, an editor asked me the other day, to fiscally conservative Republicans?
The short answer is: They got power.
Politicians who have power -- Democrat or Republican -- face a nearly irresistible urge to deliver the goodies to the folks back home. They might as well try to fight gravity as to deny their worthy constituents the bounty of Washington.
Fiscal conservatism is best practiced -- or advocated, anyway -- by those out of power.
These days, Democrats chide Republicans for their wasteful tax cuts benefiting the rich, but they see the need for more spending to protect the country from terrorist attacks, provide health care to the uninsured and job training benefits to veterans and the jobless.
Time was when Republicans were the party of fiscal austerity, but only a few Republican lawmakers are sending up cautionary flares.
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, recently said, "We really need to return as a party to balancing the budget." But, he added, "Some of my colleagues quite frankly are ignoring that."
In his State of the Union address, President Bush talked tough about fiscal discipline.
"America's prosperity requires restraining the spending appetite of the federal government. I welcome the bipartisan enthusiasm for spending discipline," he said.
But under Bush's watch, the federal deficit will balloon to a record $427 billion this year, according to administration forecasts.
Plus, Bush is urging Congress to make his tax cuts permanent. He doesn't talk about the cost, but that will add billions more to the deficit.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that keeping lower tax rates in place on dividends and capital gains -- due to expire in 2008 -- would cost the Treasury $161.6 billion from 2009 to 2015.
Giving current taxpayers more tax relief means Congress will have to "slip the bill to the children and grandchildren," said Harry Zeeve, a spokesman for the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan, grassroots organization that advocates fiscal responsibility.
"An awful lot of Republicans have serious heartburn over this," Zeeve said. "But who wants to stand up to the White House? It's very hard to stand up to the president."
Personal retirement accounts
Bush casts his proposal to save Social Security in perpetuity as a gift to the younger generation. But the cost of offering younger workers personal retirement accounts is a couple trillion dollars in the first decade. While he hasn't explained how that bill will be paid, Bush now concedes lower benefits are on the table.
The $2.5 trillion budget Bush is sending to Congress proposes to cut or eliminate 150 government programs that he said "are not getting results, or duplicate current efforts, or do not fulfill essential priorities."
One thing is certain. Deciding which government programs are ineffective or duplicative or non-essential is like judging beauty. It's in the eyes of the beholder.
When Health and Human Services secretary Michael Leavitt said last week he wanted to rein in spending on Medicaid, the health program for the poor, Republican and Democratic governors took the announcement as fighting words.
On Capitol Hill, the new chairman of the House Appropriations committee, Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., warned that White House proposals to cut programs favored by congressmen while sparing those favored by the White House would not be good enough.
Members of Congress are getting nervous that the ax may fall near them. Amtrak subsidies, flood control projects, highway construction, shipbuilding -- all have their constituents.
"I'm worried about deficits . . . like everyone else," said Rep.Rodney Alexander, R-La., a former Democrat. But, Alexander said he was "very concerned" about potential budget cuts because his impoverished district needs help providing health care and infrastructure.
Bush says he will hold the growth of discretionary spending below inflation while making his tax cuts permanent and "staying on track to cut the deficit in half by 2009."
Soon we'll see how many Republicans side with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
McCain said last month, "I don't think the wealthiest Americans right now are in need of another tax cut."
Alexander didn't go that far, but he did say he's waiting to decide whether to support Bush's call to make the tax cuts permanent "until we fully add up the numbers."
X Marsha Mercer is Washington bureau chief for Media General News Service. Scripps Howard News Service.