Commentary

Spending: Dems Still Don’t Get It

Connecticut Democratic Senate candidate Ned Lamont is calling himself “a fiscal conservative.”

With out-of-control federal spending, special-in terest earmarks and deficits projected at nearly $2 trillion over the next decade, it’s no surprise why. But what kind of fiscal conservative is Lamont? He accuses the Bush administration of fiscal profligacy and attacks it for “starving needed social investment” in the same breath.

In his campaign materials, Lamont promises to spend more money on national health insurance, universal preschool, all-day schools, “an overarching plan for clean energy and energy independence” and “a serious, long-range infrastructure plan to upgrade our schools, public transportation, highways, our sewage treatment and our levees in below sea-level areas [and] a transportation strategy which interconnects cities and suburbs, inner cities and jobs and affordable housing, and ports and airports.” Sounds pretty expensive.

Yes, Lamont has declared his opposition to budget earmarks, but earmarks - while notorious, like the “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska - are only a tiny part of the federal budget. Nowhere does he promise a balanced budget, much less a spending cut.

Now, Democrats are quite right to mock the Republican claim to fiscal responsibility. As my colleague Stephen Slivinski writes in his new book Buck Wild, President Bush and the GOP Congress are spending the taxpayers’ money faster than Bill Clinton - indeed, even faster than Lyndon Johnson in the heyday of the Great Society. Slivinski shows that federal spending has soared by 45 percent in just five years of Republican government.

Some seem to think that this means Democrats have changed. As Peter Beinart of The New Republic put it in a recent column, “The struggle that initially roiled the Clinton administration - between deficit hawks and deficit spenders - is basically over; today, even the most liberal Democrats are fiscal conservatives.”

If only. As the National Taxpayers Union notes in its latest rating of congressional voting, the average Democrat still votes for far more spending than the average Republican.

Democrats offer no plan to avert the impending insolvency of the Social Security system. They have denounced the Republicans’ trillion-dollar expansion of Medicare on the grounds that it isn’t expensive enough.

Even the relatively conservative Democrats at the Democratic Leadership Council recently released a plan to spend hundreds of billions more taxpayer dollars on everything from college tuition to housing to socialized health care for children to McGovern-style “demogrants” - $1,000 for every child - with no plausible offsetting spending cuts.

Some Democrats claim the “fiscal conservative” by saying they want to balance the budget. Lamont, for instance, says he’d “roll back Bush’s tax cuts” - that is, raise taxes. But even such a massive tax hike would hardly be sufficient to close the current deficit, and it certainly wouldn’t pay for Lamont’s sweeping spending plans. Tax revenues are up $400 billion over the five years of the Bush administration, so the deficit problem is not a result of declining revenue.

“Fiscal conservatism” means spending taxpayers’ dollars wisely. It means keeping both taxes and spending low. It means holding down the size of government and letting people keep the money they earn and spend it as they choose.

Yes, by that standard, the Republicans are spending like Democrats. But the Democrats are promising to spend even more.

Neither Lamont nor his Democratic allies are fiscal conservatives.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer.