WASHINGTON — With a tough election looming in the United States, congressional Republicans have opened the Treasury to every interest group with a letterhead. Budget analysts Stephen Moore and Stephen Slivinski figure this Congress may end up as the biggest social spender since the 1970s.

Between 1996 and 2000, the GOP-controlled Congress has spent $187 billion more than the Republicans promised when they assumed control in 1995. Most of that money has gone to good ol’ political standbys, many of which the Republicans once promised to kill.

In its “Contract with America” the GOP pledged to eliminate three Cabinet departments and 95 programs with budgets in excess of $10 million. But the departments and programs survive and, say Moore and Slivinski, their budgets have actually risen 13 percent since 1995.

Alas, that hasn’t stopped the Republicans from spending money on new initiatives as well. Pork-barrel transportation and park projects, for instance. Even television subsidies, if leading members get their way.

Scan the U.S. Constitution and you won’t find authority for much of what Washington does today. Set speed limits for roads across the country? Decide on the kind of health insurance due fired workers? Transfer taxpayers’ earnings to special interests?

Congress simply assumes that it can do whatever it wants. What was supposed to be a government of enumerated powers is now an almost unlimited Leviathan state.

Consider America’s boob tube crisis. Warns Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, “Over 6 million satellite dish owners who live in rural areas as well as medium and small cities and towns across the United States are denied access to their local news, sports coverage, weather and emergency information” because it’s not cost-effective for satellite carriers to offer local network broadcasts.

Horrors! The result could be economic collapse. As Goodlatte explains, “local television coverage is vitally important for rural development efforts.” Without every TV showing every program every day “the development of the rural United States is greatly inhibited,” he warns.

Imagine that in the U.S. today — a country of such wealth and opportunity — some people can’t watch local programs on satellite television! Forget the poverty gap. We have the TV gap.

It’s a wonder that rural Americans have survived. After all, for years Washington has ignored their tragic plight.

Luckily, our politicians are always thinking of the public interest. Even as they noisily denounce Hollywood for pandering to man’s basest instincts, they are determined to ensure that more people can watch more culturally degraded broadcasting.

Explains Goodlatte, “legislation is necessary to encourage the delivery of local network TV service to these rural Americans.” So he introduced the Rural Local Broadcast Signal Act.

His legislation, variants of which have passed both houses, would guarantee $1.25 billion worth of loans to provide local broadcast TV signals. The program would be administered by the Rural Utility Service, which after 65 years still subsidizes electricity and telephone service across the nation — including in wealthy resort communities such as Hilton Head Island, S.C., and Snowmass, Colo.

Never mind that Dan Crippen, head of the Congressional Budget Office, warns that the TV proposal is “fundamentally risky” and “could prove costly.” Nothing is more important than expanding television service across the U.S.

This is not the first time that Congress addressed the TV crisis. In 1978 a Democratic Congress created Community Antenna Television loans, administered by the RUS (in its original incarnation as the Rural Electrification Administration) to spread cable television throughout rural America. In the program’s first year the agency made $54 million in loans and loan guarantees to help Americans exercise their precious constitutional right to watch TV. President Ronald Reagan, obviously a heartless Republican, killed the subsidy.

However, the GOP has evolved: Forty-four of Goodlatte’s 56 cosponsors were fellow compassionate Republicans. Among the bill’s strongest supporters are House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who have been attempting to push the measure through the yearend legislative tangle.

Apparently their minds boggle at the thought of even one person in the U.S. without access to local TV programming. Over such an issue would the colonists have staged a revolution.

Americans are a wealthy people. Capitalism is resilient: The economy is flourishing despite the hefty burden of unnecessary taxes and regulations.

But that’s no excuse for legislators to waste taxpayers’ money. Especially to lavish money on the most ludicrous causes in order to buy votes.

Institutional budget reform would help. Constitutional limitations, procedural reform and streamlining entitlements would all reduce wasteful spending.

Most important would be a little political backbone. Legislators need to start saying no. Even if doing so means that someone somewhere in the U.S. won’t be able to see his favorite TV show.

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