Commentary

GOP Joins Democrats In Budget Shell Game

This article appeared in Copley News Service.

A new era has dawned. says House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich, R-Ohio, in which “we recognize the limits of government and depend on the strength and creativity of the American people to solve our problems.”

But why, then, did the GOP Congress vote to increase federal spending by $220 billion over the next five years?

Republican members of Congress have attempted to cloak their surrender with the rhetoric of victory. But the GOP is spouting the sort of half-truths and misleading statistics that long characterized the ruling Democrats. Worst of all is the Republicans’ cynical adoption of the practice of “baseline budgeting,” by which “cuts” are measured against hypothetical future Increases rather than current outlays. The 1996 GOP platform called this “a deceptive and reprehensible shell game.”

Not long ago, however, Kasich used this same trick in proclaiming that the budget deal will “save taxpayers over $960 billion” over the next decade, even though total spending will actually rise by hundreds of billions of dollars.

Balancing the budget is a worthy goal, but it remains less important than shrinking the size of government. Not to be the Republicans, however. During the three years before the GOP takeover of Congress, reports budget analyst Stephen Moore, Democratic congressional majorities hiked non-defense spending by $152 billion. Over the past three years, the Republican majority has increased domestic outlays by $183 billion, and the increases are growing: $48 billion in 1995, $63 billion in 1996 and $70 billion in 1997.

In short, the so-called compromise between Democrats and Republicans was no compromise at all. The GOP simply capitulated. Reports Jerry Gray of The New York Times: The budget bill “raised the level of spending which removed from the table the one issue between the Republicans and Democrats that had caused previous clashes.” When earlier this year the Congressional Budget Office “discovered” an extra $250 billion in expected revenue due to the strong economy, the Republicans didn’ t demand that it be returned to the taxpayers. They didn’t even suggest a real compromise, like giving half of it back. Rather, they agreed to spend it all.

Thus, explain Barbara Vobejda and Judith Havemann of The Washington Post, “the bill was loaded with … spending aimed at groups across the social spectrum.” There’s a new health care program for kids. There’s extra money for immigrants, welfare, Medicare. food stamps, foreign aid and more.

A few new programs wouldn’t be so bad if they were more than counterbalanced by real cuts elsewhere. But Kasich’s $950 billion in cuts don’t exist. They are fakes reductions in a phantom base line. And even these supposed cuts are unlikely to occur, since nearly three-fourths of them are back-loaded into the years 2001 and 2002, one presidential and two congressional elections in the future. Unfortunately, politicians are unlikely to be more courageous then than now.

Of course, the GOP says that it had no choice but to yield to the president, even though Democratic Congresses routinely imposed their spending priorities on Republican presidents. Indeed, had Congress focused on passing the 13 appropriations bills and choosing popular battlegrounds—affirmative action, foreign aid, welfare and the like—President Clinton would have been forced to choose between closing down government agencies and abandoning his unpopular goals.

Finally, the Republicans claim the tax cuts make the deal worthwhile. But the reduction amounts to barely I percent of the revenue that government will collect over the next five years, is partly offset by a number of new levies and gives money to people who don’t pay income taxes—thereby providing welfare in the name of tax reduction. Many Americans, especially those with neither kids nor capital gains, receive nothing back but may pay more for airline tickets, cigarettes. gasoline, phone calls and vaccines.

The legislation also runs against the GOP’s promise of simplification. Headlined one New York Times article: “A Tax Cut Your Lawyer Will Love: Professionals Will Profit From Bill’s Mind-Numbing Complexity.”

Alas the Republicans are governing like Democrats—expanding government while preaching freedom. A Democratic Congress might have been even worse, but not by much—in fact, less damage was done from 1993 to 1995, when the Democrats were in charge, than over the last two years. The difference certainly isn’t important enough to elect Republicans instead of Democrats.

Indeed, GOP contributors and campaign workers should stop wasting their money and time. If Republican lawmakers want to act like Democrats, let them raise money and win votes from Democratic activists. GOP stalwarts should send their party a message by abandoning faithless legislators.

In November, 1994, I urged readers to vote for GOP candidates not because they were that much better than the Democrats but because the Republicans “finally understand why the public is mad,” which meant that “most will do what is right because it is expedient to do so.” I was wrong. The party of government has been replaced by the party of government. Next year voters might as well switch back. After all, it is important to punish incumbents and traitors.

George Bush learned that lesson. Now the GOP needs to learn it as well.

Doug Bandow is a a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.