The Republican Spending Addiction

Even if the GOP believed in its Pledge to America, it wouldn’t touch the biggest parts of the federal budget.

Can the Pledge to America save any money?

In a speech in June, George W. Bush said his biggest disappointment as president was the failure to reform Social Security. This remark puzzled some observers, who plausibly offer the 1,500 people who died during the Katrina aftermath, or wrecking the nation’s economy, as competitive alternatives.

But Bush’s enduring concern with Social Security speaks to a schism on the right that cannot be plastered over by the homilies of the Pledge to America released today. And that is: Everyone says that the burning political issue of this election is government spending. Opposition to spending is the scalding water that fuels the Tea Party, and so the Republicans who controlled Congress for more than half of the last decade now say that the GOP ”lost our way” on spending during the Bush presidency. But what do Republicans plan to do about government spending that they favor, or indeed created? If they once were lost, have they now been found?

If you really think that the problem with the economy and/or the federal budget is as simple as too much government spending, then you have to point your finger squarely at the national Republican Party. Of the six recent Congresses essentially controlled by the GOP, from 1995 to 2006, not one ever reduced federal outlays. (The last year in which federal outlays were lower than the year before was 1965, when Democrats ran both the White House and Congress.) As soon as Republicans controlled both Congress and the White House in 2001, spending really took off, with more than $100 billion added to federal outlays every year that Bush sat in the White House (considerably more than either Bill Clinton or Bush 41).

Hence Bush’s preoccupation with Social Security, basically the largest government expenditure. (Military spending is larger these days, but it is spread over different budgets.) He knows that’s where the real money is spent, and he knows why it won’t change. Presumably, Bush’s upcoming memoir will offer more details, but in press accounts of his June speech, he said that it was resistance withinhisown party—not from Democrats—that nixed his plans to privatize Social Security.

The only thing surprising about this is that Bush seems surprised about it. Incumbent Republicans love Social Security for the same reason that all incumbents do: because voters love Social Security. More than three-quarters of all American adults say they want to know that Social Security will be there when they retire, even if they feel they won’t need it. That’s why Republicans did nothing to stop spending on Social Security, from about $433 billion in 2001 to $586 billion in fiscal year 2007 (the Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress in the 2006 election). If a Republican president working with a Republican-controlled Congress couldn’t stop the growth of Social Security spending, there’s little reason to think it will happen any other way, Tea Party or no Tea Party. And if today’s Republicans have a credible plan for trimming this budget item—or even slowing it down—they’re being quiet about it.  

The same goes for Medicare. A strong majority of Americans opposes tinkering with Medicare, and among older Americans—who are more likely to vote—opposition is 5-to-1. And so, Republicans did nothing to halt Medicare’s explosion from about $217 billion in fiscal year 2001 to $372 billion in fiscal year 2007. No one thinks that, as America’s population grows older, there will be any stopping the growth in these programs—and that’s half the federal budget right there.

Next up is defense and security, about $1 trillion a year. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll get a tiny peace dividend from the end of the military mission in Iraq, but some of that will be eaten up by increased veteran benefits and services, to say nothing of Afghanistan. Both wars were started by a Republican president and supported by Republican members of Congress. Lately, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has made some very cogent points about wasteful military spending. But they are not much different from what John McCain said through much of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and his impact on military spending has been nil.  And the fiscal year 2011 budget authority for the Department of Homeland Security—a Republican creation—is a hefty $56 billion. How much of that will Republicans cut? Crickets …

All of the above is spending that Republicans over the last 15 years or so either created, or could have cut or slowed—and never did. The relatively small portions of the federal government that the Pledge to America focuses on are almost all so-called domestic discretionary expenses, and despite Republican complaints that these expenses are ballooning, they actually got smaller, as a portion of overall spending, under Bush. Of course, that’s not because they’ve shrunk—it’s because of the huge rise in spending that Republicans approved for the military!

Hence, when you look through the GOP proposals to cut spending, they are uniformly, laughably puny. A typical idea is to permit the government to hire only one new worker for every two who leave. Leaving aside the arbitrariness of the idea, its own proponents claim that it will save a whopping $35 billion—over 10 years.  They are whacking weeds at the edge of a large field where they let sacred cows get fatter.

When Republicans denounce “government spending,” then, they’re talking only about government spending that they don’t like: the TARP (a Republican creation), health care reform, stimulus spending, the auto industry bailout. But the plain fiscal fact is that the national Republican Party has been addicted to its own forms of government spending at least since the Nixon administration. The very notion of taking a “pledge” evokes their addiction—This time it’s different, we swear!

Sure, the pledge tactic could have considerable short-term political traction, especially as the economy continues its anemic growth. The Republican Party has long shown it can win elections by hollering about taxing and spending. But winning elections won’t solve the longer-term problem that the GOP will face from the Tea Party’s embrace—which is that, unlike congressional Republicans, these people actually believe the rhetoric.

Slate V: GOP Pledge to America

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