Cheney’s Secret Failure

The Washington Post has been running a huge series on the power and influence of Vice President Cheney. The first two parts examined his immense influence on the administration’s response to 9/11, “pushing the envelope” of presidential power (not to mention vice-presidential power) and crafting the administration’s position on the use of torture — or rather “cruel, inhuman or degrading” methods of questioning.

But the third part, although written with the same sinister soundtrack, tells a very different story. The Post reporters seem to want us to be alarmed by Cheney’s power over fiscal policy and by his relentless push to reduce the burdens of taxes and spending on the American people. But there’s a problem with that story: not only is fiscal conservatism a good thing — unlike, say, secret authorization for domestic surveillance — but if Cheney’s goal was to constrain spending, he failed utterly.

Jo Becker and Barton Gellman report on Cheney’s power over the budget:

Cheney has changed history more than once, earning his reputation as the nation’s most powerful vice president. His impact has been on public display in the arenas of foreign policy and homeland security, and in a long-running battle to broaden presidential authority. But he has also been the unseen hand behind some of the president’s major domestic initiatives….

And it was Cheney who served as the guardian of conservative orthodoxy on budget and tax matters….

The vice president chairs a budget review board, a panel the Bush administration created to set spending priorities and serve as arbiter when Cabinet members appeal decisions by White House budget officials. The White House has portrayed the board as a device to keep Bush from wasting time on petty disagreements, but previous administrations have seldom seen Cabinet-level disputes in that light. Cheney’s leadership of the panel gives him direct and indirect power over the federal budget — and over those who must live within it….

Cheney often stepped in if he sensed the administration was softening its commitment to Republican “first principles,” Bolten said, and he was “a pretty vigorous voice for holding the line on spending and for holding the line on tax cuts.” Longtime Cheney adviser Mary Matalin said the vice president brings a “spine quotient” to internal debates.

To a fiscal conservative, this all sounds just fine: The most powerful vice president in American history, known as a strong conservative, is put in charge of fiscal policy and forces bureaucrats and Cabinet officers to “live within the budget.”

But we know the rest of the story: President Bush has increased federal spending at a faster pace than any president since Lyndon Johnson — or indeed faster. (And it is by no means all defense and homeland security spending.)

The Post reporters never quite tell us that, though there are some hints:

Cheney shared conservative trepidations about the president’s signature education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act, which gave the federal government more control over K-12 education. He has griped privately to confidants, such as economist and CNBC host Lawrence Kudlow, about the administration’s failure to control spending. And in robust internal White House discussions, he raised concerns about the cost of the administration’s decision to expand Medicare to include a new multibillion-dollar drug entitlement, but bowed to the political reality that the president had to fulfill a campaign promise….

“Dick once told me that our president is a ‘big-government conservative,’” said former senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), in a recollection disputed by Cheney’s office. “Now, Dick keeps his opinions to himself whenever he disagrees with the administration, as he should. But I believe that Dick is a small-government conservative.”

In a way, Cheney’s story is the story of the Bush administration: Where they pushed bad policies, policies that dramatically expand the power of the federal government and infringe on our liberties, they have had much success. When Cheney and occasionally Bush backed good policies, policies that would constrain government, they failed miserably. Indeed, if Vice President Cheney is indeed a “small-government conservative” who used his unprecedented power to “hold the line” for “conservative orthodoxy on budget and tax matters,” he has been a failure of Carteresque proportions.

Maybe taxpayers would be better off if Cheney had had his own staff prepare a secret federal budget and implement it without input from Bush’s staff, relevant Cabinet officers, Congress, or the courts.