Commentary

The Era of Super-Sized Government

By Stephen Slivinski
This article appeared in the DC Examiner, May 6, 2005.

You could walk into most fast-food restaurants not long ago and order a small, medium, or large soda. Now it seems that the smallest soda you can buy is a medium and the options for large sodas are either extra large or “super-sized.” That also seems to be the choice most voters face nowadays. They used to be able to choose between the Republicans (the party of small government) and the Democrats (the party of big government). After looking at the budget record of President Bush and the Republican Congress, it seems the only choice voters have anymore is between two political parties that have only slightly different preferences over how big government should be.

Despite the rhetoric of the president and Republicans in Congress, the actions of the GOP on the budget reflect a political party that is not at all serious about making government smaller. Once upon a time, Republicans pledged to eliminate entire Cabinet-level agencies. For instance, the House budget passed in the wake of the historic electoral victory of 1994 zeroed-out the departments of Education, Energy, and Commerce. More than 200 federal programs were set to be terminated. Of the 101 largest programs that were initially killed by Republicans, all but nineteen have risen from the dead. The combined budgets of these living dead programs have grown by 27 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1995.

During the past four years, President Bush has presided over the largest inflation-adjusted increase in spending since Lyndon B. Johnson — and that does not include the skyrocketing costs of the new Medicare drug benefit that the president loves to brag about. The size of the federal government has grown from 18.5 percent of GDP — where it was on the day Bill Clinton left office — to 20.3 percent of GDP today. The 33 percent growth in the budget during Bush’s first term is about as large as the growth of the budget during Clinton’s entire presidency.

What happened? Some argue that most of this spending is driven by increased defense expenditures required to fight the global war on terrorism and to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is true that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, made anti-terror spending a budget priority. Yet, when you strip away spending on defense, homeland security and entitlement programs and adjust the rest for inflation Bush still ranks as the biggest spending president in 30 years — only Nixon is a bigger spender. Bush actually outspends Johnson by this criterion.

What has happened during the Bush presidency so far is that Republicans have resorted to a guns-and-butter philosophy of budgeting: instead of cutting low-priority programs to make room for high-priority spending they have urged increases in everything. Every president of the past 40 years other than Johnson and Jimmy Carter offset real increases in non-defense spending with real decreases in defense spending, or vice versa. The GOP has reversed this historical norm.

Bush’s new budget does very little to change this situation. While it does include reductions in non-defense programs to make room for increases in defense spending — 154 domestic programs would either be eliminated or cut — Bush’s budget knife does too little slicing in overall terms. The cuts and program terminations amount to a miniscule fraction of total federal spending: they equal only 0.3 percent of the overall budget. And not a single Cabinet-level agency will be smaller in real terms than it was at the beginning of Bush’s first term. Every president of the past 40 years found at least one agency to cut during his administration.

Congress is likely to increase spending even more, just as it has done every year since 2001. In fact, if Congress had simply rubber-stamped Bush’s budget proposals every year, taxpayers would have been saved from footing the bill for an additional $91 billion in non-defense programs from 2001 to 2005. Instead, Congress piled more largesse into the budget bills and Bush refused to veto any of them.

Perhaps former President Clinton is correct and the era of big government is indeed over. Thanks to the GOP, taxpayers are greeted with the prospect of something far worse: the era of super-sized government.

Stephen Slivinski is director of budget studies at the Cato Institute.