Hey, Wait A Minute

The Spend and Elect GOP

There’s nobody left to say no to wasteful federal programs. 

For as long as anyone can remember, Republicans and spending cuts have gone together like trains and tracks. But this year, you’re more likely to hear Al Gore toast Monica Lewinsky than to find George W. Bush promising to trim the federal budget. Largely unnoticed, GOP leaders have not only given up the fight, they’ve defected to the other side. Bush is the first Republican nominee in decades to propose no significant spending reductions. In fact, according to the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, proposals he has made so far would add $76 billion a year in federal expenditures.

Bush won’t get much argument from congressional Republicans—those fiscal watchdogs who have lost their bite. Back in 1995, the House Budget Committee envisioned a drastic downsizing of the federal bureaucracy, proposing to kill three Cabinet departments, 14 agencies, 68 commissions, and 283 spending programs. But the crusade soon fizzled. Almost everything on the list is still alive and well. A recent study  by the Cato Institute found that between 1996 and 2000, domestic discretionary spending rose 14 percent faster than the inflation rate. Even programs that were supposed to be zeroed out, such as the Education Department, are awash in cash.

And the GOP can’t blame this all on Bill Clinton. “In the past three years,” says the Cato study, “the Republican discretionary budgets have exceeded the White House requests by a total of more than $30 billion.” The party that once campaigned against Big Government has made peace with, at least, medium government.

Consider a few of the items targeted for major cuts and how they have fared:

The Department of Education: It was slated for extinction when the GOP took over Congress in 1995. But in two of the last three years, says Cato, Congress has approved more spending than President Clinton requested. And Bush proposes to surpass even that sum, adding $11 billion to its budget.

Farm subsidies: The 1996 “Freedom to Farm” act was supposed to finally wean agriculture off welfare. But when farmers found the new row tough to hoe, Congress approved so much emergency spending that payments to farmers actually increased. Bush offers a new crop: an insurance program priced at $6 billion a year.

“Impact Aid”: Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan both thought we spend far too much paying local school districts to educate the children of military personnel—including those whose parents live off-base and pay property taxes to finance schools. Newt Gingrich and Co. wanted to abolish the program. Bush says it deserves an extra $310 million a year.

Energy conservation: A relic of the Carter-era energy crisis, this was cited by Republicans as a prime example of Washington trying to handle a task that belonged to the free market. But since 1993, its claim on the federal treasury has grown by 26 percent.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting: With hundreds of channels available to TV viewers, offering everything from nightly history tutorials to opera and ballet, this program looked like it had used up the last of its lives in 1995. But Gingrich proved no match for Kermit the Frog. This year’s budget is up 36 percent from two years ago.

The Commerce Department: Denounced as a fount of corporate welfare, it was supposed to be eliminated entirely, and it took an 11 percent cut after the GOP gained power. The following year, it started growing again, and it’s getting more money this year than it got before the cut.

What brought on the reversal? Newt Gingrich and Co. quickly learned that spending cuts are a lot more appealing to voters in the abstract than in the concrete. Everyone applauds the idea of cutting out waste in Washington. But every item in the budget has a constituency of beneficiaries—most of them vocal, well-organized, and fully capable of making a budget-cutting politician’s life miserable. When their efforts at frugality drew the predictable response, congressional Republicans discovered that wresting goodies away from voters was not as much fun as they’d anticipated. If you try to abolish the Education Department, they learned, you’re accused of being hostile to education itself. If you want to raze the National Endowment for the Arts, you’re tabbed an ignorant philistine. That their motives might be questioned seemed to come as a brutal shock to Republicans accustomed to being merely ignored. Once they faced an enemy that was shooting real bullets, a lot of fiscal conservatives bolted for the rear.

Under Clinton, Republicans also lost their most potent argument for fiscal restraint: the deficit. For a long time, when all other arguments failed, they could always fall back on insisting that this cut or that trim, however painful, was essential to staunch the flow of red ink. In 1995, the House Budget Committee put up a debt clock in its hearing room to remind everyone of the growing cost of profligacy. The deficit put spending advocates on the defensive, and they reconciled themselves to the fact that not every program they liked would get funded.

But with the economic boom filling the treasury, Republicans can no longer rely on the deficit to justify penny-pinching. Instead of a presumption that we can’t afford Proposal X, the presumption is that we can and we should. In the absence of a broad need for at least some austerity, budget-cutters now have to carry the burden of proof, and they haven’t been able or willing to do so. Instead, they seem to be asking each other, “Uh, why was it we wanted to cut spending?”

Free spenders rejoicing at the GOP’s conversion from fiscal Puritanism may soon have second thoughts. Given all the potential for waste and abuse in a $1.8 trillion budget, someone needs to be constantly on the lookout for programs that cater to the undeserving or fail to achieve their ostensibly noble purpose. For decades, conservatives have shouldered that task (though quite imperfectly). Their skepticism has put some sort of check on Congress’ natural urge to buy favor with generous campaign contributors, well-organized special interests, and large voting blocs. Which Democrats in Congress will take over that thankless role? And if the GOP stops reflexively saying no to liberal programs, will liberals have no incentive to stop scrutinizing spending programs they naturally oppose, such as prison construction, drug interdiction, logging on federal lands, and missile defense?

Money blown on bad programs is money that can’t be directed either to better programs, as liberals prefer, or to tax cuts, as conservatives wish. Both sides, and the public at large, stand to lose if the policy debate is reduced to a perpetual bidding war.

But the harm to the country may be less than the harm to the Republican Party. For half a century, the GOP, for better or worse, stood for anti-communism, free markets, and small government. Today, communism is nearly extinct, and the market is accepted even by liberals as the only way to organize an economy. If reducing the size of government is no longer a concern of Republicans, Americans may start to ask what the party has to offer that Democrats don’t.