Commentary

The Grand Old Spending Party

By Stephen Moore and James Carter
March 29, 1999

Congressional budget resolutions are all too often like New Year’s resolutions. We all pledge at the start of the year to watch less TV, lose weight or exercise daily, but the promises are violated early and often—then soon conveniently forgotten.

This year’s budget plan, crafted ably by Rep. John Kasich of Ohio, has many positive features. By taking Social Security off-budget, the plan deftly avoids the “save Social Security first” trap set by the White House. By adhering to the spending ceilings from the 1997 budget deal, the plan would, in theory at least, prevent another ugly $20 billion election-eve spending spree like the one we saw at the end of 1998. Perhaps best of all, it would effectively repeal the “pay-go” budget rules that have prevented savings from budget cuts from being turned into tax cuts.

But the plan still has gaping defects. First, the GOP’s budgets are still too big. The $1.74 trillion Uncle Sam would spend next year is more than $50,000 per second. In the five-year budget now being pasted together in Congress, the federal government will spend just a shade under $10 trillion—of which about 90 percent will replenish nanny state social programs.

Second, the budget resolution fails to mention by name even a single government program that should be extinguished. Can it be that the party that seized a majority in the House and Senate five years ago with a Reaganite message of smaller and smarter government can no longer identify programs that should be smaller and smarter? Surely a budget that called for the elimination of oinkers like bilingual education, corporate welfare grants to market Ralston Purina cat food, 1970s-style population control programs around the world and honey bee subsidies would elicit thunderous approval from a public that increasingly questions whether it gets anything close to its money’s worth from Uncle Sam.

Many domestic programs that were once slated for elimination are now better fed than they were when the Democrats ran Capitol Hill. The odious Goals 2000 program’s budget has doubled from $231 million in 1995 to $507 million in 1999. The Economic Development Administration, a pork-barrel agency that the Reagan White House long ago identified as a weed patch in the federal budget, has seen its budget catapult from $350 million to $438 million. The accompanying table shows how programs once slated for termination have grown in recent years.

The Return of the Living Dead
Cabinet Agencies 1995 1999
Department of Commerce $ 3,410 $ 4,767
Department of Education 31,322 35,000
Programs Goals 2000 231 507
Manufacturing Extension Prg. 40 128
Economic Development Admin. 350 438
Star Schools 25 45
Americorps 426 456
Bilingual Education 225 351
Trade Adjustment Assistance 268 325
Adult Education 299 400
Source: Internal Revenue Service

Our strong suspicion is that, by year’s end, this year’s budget resolution may not be worth the paper it’s written on. One reason to be skeptical is that so far this year when actual spending plans have come to a vote, fiscal conservatives have been routed. Earlier this month House Republicans approved a 50 percent four-year increase in the Great Society era Peace Corps program. “I’m surprised that anyone who says they are for smaller government would have supported this bill,” moaned Rep. David McIntosh (R-Ind.) after the 326-90 vote.

This seems to be the continuation of a pro-spending trend. Last year the inflation-adjusted increase in domestic discretionary spending was the second largest in 21 years. Republicans in Congress have outspent Clinton’s budget in two of the past three years.

In some cases, the GOP is even now openly boasting of outspending the White House. The budget resolution trumpets “an overall Department of Education net increase of $2.4 billion in 2000, double the president’s budget, and an increase of $31 billion over the next five years, five times the president’s request.” Such pro-spending rhetoric sends to voters precisely the mixed messages that are causing the GOP heartburn in the polls.

On fiscal matters Republicans need to learn from Reagan’s political success in battling the pro-spending Democrats for eight years. That success emanated from Reagan’s unwavering commitment to a few core ideas: strong defense, less government interference in our lives, lower taxes. Even when Reagan lost the short-term policy battles, he drew public support by sticking to those bedrock principles of freedom. When the Reagan White House caved in to congressional spending demands, it didn’t crow about it.

This year’s budget resolution is fine. But actions speak louder than words. Will Republicans actually cast the tough votes to cut spending? Rep. Mark Sanford, the third-term South Carolina Republican recently despaired: “I would hate to have to say that we’ve spent five years at this job, and at the end of it, government was bigger and taxing more than when we came, but that’s where we are.” That’s also the best way to get run out of town in November 2000.

Stephen Moore is a director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute. James Carter is a fiscal analyst working in Washington.