Commentary

Clinton and Gore Reinvent Big Government

By Stephen Moore
This article first appeared in the Washington Times, February 7, 2000.
In 1995 Bill Clinton famously declared that “the era of big government is over,” and for a very brief, glorious time in Washington, he was right. For about 18 months after the Republicans won control of Congress, big government and Bill Clinton were in full scale retreat.

But in this, his last budget, Bill Clinton has formally announced that big government is back with a vengeance. This $1.8 trillion fiscal blueprint is the largest request for money of any government or enterprise in the history of civilization. If approved, the expenditures of the U.S. government will be $400 billion larger than they were when Bill Clinton first arrived in Washington and converted the White House into a den of iniquity and Chinese fundraising. That’s just under $4,000 more government for every household in America.

The budget contains more than 100 new federal initiatives. Perhaps more amazingly, there isn’t a single existing federal program of consequence that we would finally get rid of. In reading through these cavernous proposals, one gets a sense that this White House truly believes that there isn’t a single problem in America that can’t be fixed with a new gold-plated government program. Gary Bauer wasn’t exaggerating much when he complained that he wouldn’t be surprised if Clinton proposed a federal initiative to combat “nail biting.”

The National Taxpayers Union has provided the public service of tallying up all the costs associated with the Clinton-Gore agenda. They reckon the price tag is $126 billion. That’s more than the total income of every resident of Vermont and New Hampshire. So much for saving Social Security first.

Many of these proposals were first unveiled in the president’s State of the Union message last month. The Senate Budget Committee calculated that Clinton was, on average, proposing roughly $1.5 billion of new spending every minute he spoke. The U.S. Treasury Department only has the capacity to print about $1 billion a minute. Translation: Clinton wants to spend money even faster than the U.S. government’s presses can print it.

Where would all this $1.8 trillion of money go? Clinton proposes the further federalization of day care, schools and crime, a multi-billion dollar increase in foreign aid (including paying America’s phantom back dues “owed” to the United Nations), hundreds of millions of dollars of new federal aid to “make our cities more liberal,” err, “livable,” “the largest expansion in federal health coverage since the establishment of Medicare,” a new “farm safety net, a 25 percent increase in federal R & D dollars, and more funding for discrimination claims (trial lawyers are going to love that). My favorite Clinton-Gore initiative is the $336 million pricetag for programs to “help Americans help themselves.” Shouldn’t the people “helping themselves,” pay for it themselves?

But what of the GOP response? This budget and its catalog of nanny state proposals should be denounced and ridiculed. If they have any fight left in them, GOP leaders must draw a clear line of distinction in the sand and promise to American taxpayers that they will fight against this federal power-grab. To this Clinton budget, Congress should “just say no.”

So far Republicans have signaled a maddening receptiveness to all of this spending. The Republican response to the State of the Union by 2 of the Senate’s least conservative voices, Susan Collins of Maine and Bill Frist of Tennessee was, to put it charitably, feeble. We were spoon fed “me-too” Republicanism. Susan Collins told us that Republicans want to spend “more money” on schools than Bill Clinton (it seems just yesterday Republicans correctly wanted to get the federal government and its vast bureaucracy out of education), and Bill Frist declared that we should socialize medicine at a slightly slower pace than the White House proposes. How inspiring!

The Clinton tax proposals are also wrongheaded. The budget contains about $15 billion in tax cuts—but they amount to less than 1 percent of our $2 trillion in revenues. Worse, these are precisely the kinds of “targetted” tax carve-outs that merely use the tax code as a device for social engineering. They would only further complicate the IRS code that already runs 9,000 pages long. The biggest beneficiaries of the plan would be accountants and tax attorneys.

What is needed is precisely the opposite approach on taxes: a radical overhaul and simplification of the code. One low flat rate, no deductions, a post card return, and a more civilized IRS to enforce it. Unfair taxes like the death tax, the Social Security earnings test, capital gains, and the marriage penalty ought to be ended immediately.

This budget is important because we now get our first glimpse at what Al Gore would do if he were president. It isn’t a pretty picture. Clinton and by implication Al Gore have presented a bold and ambitious Democratic agenda of a re-invigorated and activist central government in Washington. It is a utopian agenda of cradle to grave security—patterned after the kind of paternalistic welfare state that is all the rage in Europe. That approach has saddled those nations with stagnant economies, double digit unemployment, and capital flight.

To prevent their own political extinction, Republicans now need to provide “a choice not an echo,” as Barry Goldwater once said. Meaningful reductions in debt and taxes, spending restraint, elimination of corrupt programs like foreign aid and corporate welfare, individual accounts for Social Security, and term limits would be an effective counterplan. The GOP also needs to take credit for the economic expansion, for tax cuts already delivered, for the balanced budget, and the spectacular success of welfare reform.

One thing is certain: if Republicans don’t energetically oppose the Clinton-Gore agenda of government expansionism while they are in the majority this year, they may very well be fighting the Gore-Feinstein agenda next year while sitting on the back benches in their accustomed spot in the minority.

Stephen Moore is director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute.