Commentary

The Era of Big Government Lives On

By Stephen Moore
January 25, 1999

There is good news and bad news about Bill Clinton’s State of the Union speech. The bad news is that Bill Clinton wants to federalize every area of American life — a virtual blanket of protection from cradle to grave. The good news is that if the president has his way, we won’t need state and local governments anymore. Oh, and we probably won’t need churches, families, charities or other civic institutions any longer either.

That giant sucking sound America heard on Tuesday night was their federal tax dollars, tens of billions of them, flowing out of Washington in one fell swoop. If you’ve got a problem — an ear ache, a sick kid, a sick dog, a dragging muffler on your car, low self-esteem, not enough time to pick up your kids after school and get them to the next soccer match — Bill Clinton undoubtedly has a government program just for you.

For the first five minutes of his speech the president paid homage to fiscal responsibility and a budget surplus he had nothing to do with creating. If only he had stopped there. If only he had declared the state of the union healthy and prosperous and then let us get back to our regularly scheduled programming. But it was not to be. For the next hour the president unveiled a vision of a European welfare state transplanted to the North American continent. This was the most exhaustive list of government expansions since Lyndon Johnson launched the Great Society. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was brilliantly delivered in less than 5 minutes. It took Bill Clinton an hour and 15 minutes to deliver his message — but in fairness it takes a long time to spend as much money as this administration wants to — especially when with every new idea the Democrats, and all too often the Republicans too, erupted in applause.

The president served up big chunks of raw red meat to the special interest lobbies in Washington—the teachers’ unions, federal workers, the day care providers, the environmentalists, the trial lawyers and on down the line. There is something in this budget for damn near everyone unless you’re one of those endangered species in America who work for a living, pay your taxes and have just one simple request of Uncle Sam: please leave me the hell alone.


[In his State of the Union speech] the president unveiled a vision of a European welfare state transplanted to the North American continent. This was the most exhaustive list of government expansions since Lyndon Johnson launched the Great Society.


Throughout the president’s fire-sale speech I pounded away on my hand calculator furiously trying to keep a running tally of the price tag for all the nanny state initiatives. Alas, I couldn’t keep up with this White House’s inventiveness and fell hopelessly behind. But here is my best faith effort to answer the question heretofore unasked by the media: just how much is all this going to cost? The answer: at least $100 billion over the next five years, according to my preliminary estimates. Below is a list of the big ticket items:

  • $25 billion for expanding Medicare to non-seniors;
  • $10 billion for Medicare drug benefits;
  • $8 billion for higher veterans’ benefits;
  • $15 billion for higher military pay;
  • $5.5 billion for federal land purchases;
  • $1.5 billion for new carpool lanes, bike paths and transit spending;
  • $4 billion for parks;
  • $10 billion for new farm programs;
  • $1.5 billion for homelessness assistance;
  • $20 billion for new school construction and other education programs;
  • $3.5 billion for the Export-Import Bank and other corporate welfare subsidies;
  • $7.5 billion for child care and after school programs;
  • $1 billion for drug testing;
  • $2.5 billion for a domestic version of OPIC;
  • $1 billion for Americorps expansion;
  • $2 billion for global warming research.

So much for saving Social Security first!

There are loads of other intrusive and costly ideas — if not in tax dollars, in eroded liberties. Raising the minimum wage — which destroys jobs for teens and minorities; the Justice Department’s suing the tobacco companies for Medicare reimbursement; expanding family leave; compelling our trading partners to comply with the same onerous regulations that have hampered our economy. And the worst idea of all: having the government invest the money in the Social Security trust fund, thus making the federal government the largest investor in our private corporations. This is privatization in reverse: rather than divest ownership, the state would start amassing hundreds of billions of dollars of ownership shares. No, the era of big government is not over in Washington.

Oh, and how many of the thousands of federal programs that we already have — and many of which pre-date World War II — did this president propose doing away with? A grand total of zero.

Incredibly, some GOP pundits declared that Clinton’s speech borrowed Republican ideas. They boasted that the president had moved to the right. What speech were they listening to? Bill Clinton promised a new Great Society, and too many Republicans evidently liked what they heard.

Republicans cannot defeat these thousand nuggets of statism by picking and choosing as if they were presented with a Chinese menu. They cannot stop these initiatives by fighting them one bad idea at a time. This is a vision for America that must be rejected in toto. They must denounce this Clintonian platform as contrary to our Constitution and an attack on the Jeffersonian notion of freedom.

It was precisely to reject Clintonianism that Republicans were given the majorities in Congress in the first place. America does not need a new Great Society; we need to continue to roll back the failed one we already have.

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