Republicans are not without fiscal accomplishments. In 1995 Congress enacted the first credible welfare reform package since Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty 35 years ago. The 1995 farm bill, while still deeply flawed, was the most market‐oriented overhaul of the system in many years. The Republican Congress is also poised to pass the first federal tax cut since 1981 –although it will save taxpayers less than one cent on every dollar they send to Washington.
Arguably, the most impressive achievement of the congressional Republicans and President Clinton has been the dramatic decline in the budget deficit. In just three years, the 104th and 105th Congresses and the White House have slashed the deficit by two‐thirds. Most of that reduction has been due to continued reductions in post‐Cold War defense spending and a surge of revenues in the past two years.
But for fiscal conservatives, the real test is whether the size and scope of government have been cut since November 1994. The unfortunate answer is: not by much. In fact, congressional Republicans have now approved three budgets in fiscal years 1996–1998. Amazingly, over that period, total nondefense expenditures will have surged by $183 billion, or $31 billion more than in the three years before the GOP took over Congress.
The trend is in the direction of fiscal slippage. In 1996 Republicans increased spending by $48 billion; in 1997, by $63 billion; and now the 1998 budget will rise by a minimum of another $70 billion. Domestic spending rises by 5.4 percent in 1998, or twice the inflation rate, under the bipartisan budget deal. That’s hardly a starvation diet.
To have a balanced budget in five years, spending could rise by $70 billion in 1998 but by only $32 billion in 2002. Republicans in the 105th Congress have promised that future Congresses (and a future president) will exercise a level of fiscal restraint that they themselves will not exercise right now. In defense of the Newt Gingrich‐led Congress, it is true that expenditures on social programs would have been about $20 billion lower this year and next, had Bill Clinton not vetoed market‐oriented changes in Medicare and Medicaid two years ago. Republicans cannot single‐handedly rein in spending on so‐called “entitlement” programs. To change the law on public benefits requires the president’s signature — as the GOP painfully discovered in 1995 when Clinton torpedoed their Medicare agenda. On the other hand, Republicans have voted to expand existing entitlements and to create new ones. For example, the budget deal permits at least $16 billion in new government health care programs for children through 2002.