December 15, 2005
The Upsizing of the Federal Government
Back in the 1960s, there was not much of a conservative movement
in America, and the idea of reducing the size of the federal government
was seen as a ridiculous fantasy. A lot has changed since then:
Conservatives boast decisive power in both houses of Congress,
they count the president as one of their own, and they have vigorous
champions throughout the news media. But the idea of reducing
the size of the federal government is still seen as a ridiculous
who now dominate Washington bring to mind Ann Darrow, the blonde
heroine of the movie "King Kong." At first, she finds
the enormous creature repulsive and terrifying, but once she gets
to know him, she finds he's not so bad. Big government struck
them as a thoroughly pernicious phenomenon when it was controlled
by liberal Democrats. Once it became their tool and their toy,
they had a change of heart.
congressional actions make it painfully obvious that Republicans
no longer have the slightest desire to diminish the size, cost
or power of the central government. Last month, amid a great deal
of self-congratulation, the House voted to eliminate $50 billion
in entitlement spending. That sounds impressive until you consider
that this year, Washington will spend some $2.6 trillion, and
that these savings would be spread gently over five years.
matter, this plan doesn't actually cut total federal outlays.
It merely reduces the annual rate of growth in entitlement spending
from 5.4 percent to 5.2 percent.
the people in charge like spending tax dollars, however, doesn't
mean they like collecting them. They prefer to give voters goodies
without insisting that voters pay for them. Last week, the House
approved tax cuts worth $95 billion over the next five years --
nearly double the spending cuts. So, under the best scenario,
the deficit will grow and the government will continue to borrow
been the pattern under President Bush, who has done much to squander
the budget surplus he inherited. Thanks in large part to his tax
cuts, federal receipts plunged in his first term. Some conservatives
still entertain the idea that tax cuts pay for themselves. In
inflation-adjusted terms, though, revenues are the lowest they
have been since 1998.
cuts were supposed to have another positive effect. For years,
conservatives have said they would yield a smaller government,
through a process known as "starving the beast." Allow
Congress less money to spend, they reasoned, and it would have
to spend less.
were the case, big government would be pretty emaciated by now.
Instead, the beast looks more like a product of the obesity epidemic.
Since the GOP won control of the House of Representatives in 1994,
federal outlays have grown by nearly a third, after accounting
Institute budget analyst Chris Edwards notes in his new book,
"Downsizing the Federal Government," Republicans have
learned that shoveling out dollars is a lot more fun than pinching
pennies. In the 1995-96 session of Congress, for every bill introduced
to reduce outlays, there were two bills to increase outlays. By
2003-04, the imbalance had become positively grotesque -- with
24 spending bills for every one bill to cut spending.
deserved a lot of the credit for the surpluses of the 1990s, which
came about because they forced President Clinton to agree to balance
the budget. Regrettably, that achievement turned out to be as
fleeting as a Florida snowfall. In real terms, the deficit is
bigger now than it was when they started.
aside, most Republicans in Washington secretly share the sentiment
of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who said in
September that there was nothing left in the budget to cut because
"after 11 years of Republican majority, we've pared it down
pretty good." In fact, Edwards came up with more than 100
programs that could be reduced or eliminated, from farm subsides
to the National Endowment for the Arts to Social Security, saving
$380 billion a year.
would not be politically easy. They might be politically possible,
though, if Americans understood that they are the only way to
put the nation on a sound fiscal footing, avoid huge future tax
increases and spare our children an immense burden of debt. Republicans
may no longer worry about such matters, but someone should.
2005 Creators Syndicate