Commentary

Where’s the Opposition?

This article appeared in the Washington Times, August 22, 2005.
The bipartisan support for pork-filled highway and energy bills passed in July highlighted a void in Washington: an opposition party willing to challenge wasteful spending.

After a decade of Republican control in Congress, the budget has expanded by two-thirds and earmarked pork projects have exploded tenfold. Democrats snipe at Republicans for just about everything — except their reckless spending.

In the early 1990s, Republicans lambasted the Democrats’ wasteful spending, and that helped propel them to power in 1994. Today, Democrats are missing a ripe opportunity to attack the GOP’s equally wasteful ways. The two parties are partners-in-crime in pork spending, corporate subsidies, unneeded Pentagon weapons systems, misallocated homeland security funding, and other waste.

There once were Democrats who fought to cut wasteful spending. William Proxmire, a liberal Wisconsin senator between 1957 to 1989 was famous for his “Golden Fleece” awards, which highlighted taxpayer ripoffs. Mr. Proxmire sent out a monthly report profiling spending that should be cut.

His 1972 book was titled Uncle Sam, The Last of the Big Time Spenders. When was the last time a Democrat wrote a book with a title like that?

Another reform-minded Democrat was Paul Douglas, a senator from Illinois between 1949 and 1967. He was a self-proclaimed liberal and champion of civil rights but also a critic of government waste who often said: “A liberal need not be a wastrel.” His 1952 book on cutting the budget argued “waste in the government benefits no one. It is a frittering-away of resources which could be used to improve the lives of people.”

Liberals reflexively defend spending because they believe the government does much to help the poor. But most federal spending does not go to the poor. And studies have found the overall budget is roughly proportional in impact. Medicare benefits, for example, go to the elderly at all income levels. Indeed, certain features of Medicare tilt benefits in favor of those with higher incomes.

Douglas argued “federal expenditures are swollen not merely by waste and less necessary outlays, but also by open or hidden subsidies to the wealthy.” That is still true. Farm households receive billions of dollars of subsidies, yet they have above-average incomes; the National Aeronatics and Space Administration is a giant subsidy program for high-paid scientists; college loan subsidies go to those who will become well-off professionals; subsidies for Native Americans go to tribes made wealthy from casino gambling.

Liberals should question the need for such programs while there are $300 billion deficits. As rising entitlement costs create growing budget pressures, the antipoverty programs they really care about may be squeezed out. Democrats should try to kill Republican boondoggles such as the president’s plan for a manned mission to Mars.

Some liberal groups, such as the Brookings Institution, have called for budget cuts, as have some Democrats in Congress, such as Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee. But when the bloated highway bill passed in July, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Republican) did not criticize Republican overspending: They each issued a press release touting the pork projects they scored for their states. If Democratic leaders want to appeal to middle America, they must occasionally stand up for taxpayers.

That goes for the 2008 presidential race, as well — the Democrats should wise up and run a fiscal conservative for a change. Even better would be a candidate who outflanked the Republicans on pro-market reforms that benefited average families. Why not embrace privatization, for example?

There is no liberal purpose served by government ownership of Amtrak, the Postal Service and other businesses. Private enterprise could offer better services at lower cost. That would benefit the poor more than anyone.

Since their 2004 election defeat, some Democrats propose to win back voters by adopting a more socially conservative message. But social conservatives are comfortable in the Republican Party and have no reason to jump ship.

Fiscal conservatives are angry with the GOP’s direction in recent years, and they would warmly embrace a Proxmire-Douglas message that challenges the Grand Old Spending Party.

Chris Edwards is director of tax policy at the Cato Institute and author of Downsizing the Federal Government (Cato Institute, forthcoming in November).