Republican senator George LeMieux of Florida has done the math. If government spending were reduced to its 2007 level, we’d have a balanced budget (with a $163 billion surplus). Returning to the 2008 level of spending, the budget would be balanced in 2014 (a $133 billion surplus). And in both cases, that’s while keeping the Bush tax cuts across the board and indexing the loathed alternative minimum tax for inflation.
“Could we live with what we did in 2007?” LeMieux asks—the “we” a collective reference to Congress, the federal government, and the country. He thinks so. Because of the recession, “most Americans are living with less than they had in 2007.”
LeMieux’s ideas on curbing spending haven’t gotten much attention. That’s because of who he is, a 40-year-old appointed rather than elected senator filling out the final 16 months of the term of Mel Martinez, who resigned. He’s not running for election this November. In fact, he’s never been elected to any office. (Nor is he related to Mario Lemieux, the hockey legend.)
When LeMieux arrived in Washington last September, he was struck—appalled, really—by one thing. “You come in thinking Washington is out of control,” he says. “And spending is out of control.” But it’s actually much worse than that. After working as chief of staff for Florida governor Charles Crist, then managing a large law firm in Ft. Lauderdale, LeMieux found the spending habits on Capitol Hill “bizarre.”
“It stands in sharp contrast to what the real world is like,” he says. For the state government in Florida, “the biggest thing in town” is the quarterly report of how much revenue has been collected. “We could only spend what was coming in.”
Not so in Washington. “No one asks what we’re taking in,” LeMieux says. “And no one gauges” how much to spend based on that amount. “After a while you get used to it,” he says. At least he assumes that’s what occurs. LeMieux hopes that doesn’t happen to him. “I haven’t bought in,” he says. He won’t be in Washington long enough to become inured to the spending binge.
When he talks to fellow senators about the need to slash spending, LeMieux thinks some of them dismiss his fervor as the result of inexperience. “He’ll learn soon enough we don’t do that kind of stuff here”—that’s the way they regard him, LeMieux suspects. And he’s probably right.
He prefers the Florida approach, which is similar to what other states do to meet their balanced budget requirement. In 2007, “storm clouds” of the looming recession began to appear. With diminishing revenue, the state could do three things: cut spending, raise taxes, or find new sources of tax revenue.
The state began to pare its budget, from $73 billion in 2006 to $70 billion in 2007 and even lower to $66.5 billion last year. As the law mandates, there was no deficit. LeMieux cites this as the opposite of the Washington practice. Estimated spending for 2010 is $3.8 trillion based on revenue of $2.2 trillion, leaving a humongous $1.6 trillion deficit.
After four months in Washington, LeMieux is willing to support “anything” to bend the spending curve. Last week, he joined Republican senators Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn in seeking a yearlong ban on earmarks, which fund special projects for individual states or congressional districts. “I’ve made the decision to voluntarily disarm,” he says. He’ll propose no earmarks for Florida.
LeMieux is convinced that earmarks are, as DeMint insists, “the engine that drives the train.” A senator is bound to vote for an appropriations bill, no matter how bloated, if his earmarks are in it. “That’s the way you get 10 percent, 15 percent, 20 percent increases in spending,” he says.
A balanced budget amendment, a constitutional amendment giving the president line item veto authority, legislation to kill duplicative federal programs—the senator is for all of these. He thinks agency heads should submit annual budgets with a 5 percent cut across the board as “a healthy exercise in efficiency.” “I’ll bet you could cut 20 percent out of the budgets of agencies” without any loss in efficiency. Washington would scream.
But something worse could happen if Washington doesn’t get a grip on its spending and debt. LeMieux mentioned it in his first speech on the Senate floor in October. “One of my greatest concerns is that one day one of my children will come to me when they are grown and say that they are moving to another country, perhaps to Ireland or Chile, because they believe the opportunities are greater than the promise and the opportunities of America,” he said.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.