Congress tries new approach to meeting its fiscal goals

Congress took some heat earlier this month when it afflicted the country with huge budget cuts in the form of the sequester — but left Congressional salaries alone. And now comes a report out of the Washington Guardian that House Republicans may have gone on an eating binge using taxpayer money:

As the country hurtled toward the fiscal cliff and sequestration, House Republican leaders apparently couldn’t live without their catering, coffee and cars.

In the last quarter of 2012, they spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to bring in food and drink from upscale restaurants, trendy coffee shops and grocery stores — even though Congress was only in session about a third of the time.

Coverage of the spending has focused on the GOP’s professed interest in decreased government spending and attempted to highlight this seeming hypocrisy. The original report from the Guardian was headlined “GOP leaders spent tens of thousands on coffee, doughnuts and catering” and continued, “The country may be headed toward leaner times with the sequester budget cuts, but you couldn’t tell from the way members of Congress spent on themselves.” But I’m not sure that narrative is altogether correct — or fair.

For one thing, the amount in question is peanuts compared to the overall budget. For another, Democrats behave in exactly the same way — it just doesn’t make headlines because we already know they’re big spenders.

But most importantly, let’s take a look at where all that money went:

House Speaker John Boehner’s office racked up  $2,204.66 in coffee supply purchases during the month of November alone. The Speaker’s office had more than $15,000 in expenses, according to the congressional audit report, more than $11,000 of which was for food and beverages. The spending came even though Congress was only is session 35 of the 92 days in October, November and December.

In another instance, California Republican and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy’s office spent nearly $2,500 of his more than $10,000 in expenses in one day at Qdoba Mexican Grill. Among the expenses listed in McCarthy’s expenditure report – in addition to the Qdoba tab – are $2,300 at Chicken Out Catering and almost $2,600 at Buca di Beppo restaurant in Washington.

The smallest expenditure tab belonged to Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office, which totaled less than $4,200. Almost $3,000 of that was for purchases at Harris Teeter, Safeway, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Highland Estates Coffee.

If only Republicans were in any position to sell government spending as an attempt at job creation. Alas.

Now let’s review the criticism all this spending incurred. The Guardian interviewed Norm Ornstein, an expert on Congress and a senior political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute:

“The larger question – where will Congress show its own belt tightening when some of the dislocations caused by sequester begin to bite out in the country – is as yet unanswered. But I doubt it will involve cutting out the coffee at the caucus meeting.”

Ornstein rightly highlights budgetary belt-tightening as a Republican priority, but I think he misses one crucial point: follow the money — straight to Qdoba, Chicken Out, Dunkin’ Donuts. And remember, there’s more than one way to tighten a belt (and it doesn’t involve making the belt smaller):



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