Bush’s Bigger, Fatter Welfare State

This article originally appeared on National Review Online on July 18, 2003.

The Bush administration has weighed in on the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriation bill being debated in Congress. Unfortunately, the administration’s policy statement on the bill shows how deeply it has embraced expansion of the welfare state.

The statement is riddled with complaints about “underfunded” programs and demands for “full funding” of new “initiatives.” It requests that Congress increase funding on social programs with trite names, such as Parent Drug Corps, Compassion Capital Fund, and Steps to a Healthier US. The administration has rapidly expanded domestic spending, and this statement reveals the mushy liberal mindset at work behind the increases with little regard to taxpayer costs.

Steps to a Healthier US promises “community initiatives to promote and enable healthful choices.” Checking out the program details here suggests that most of the money for this federal‐​local community partnership will get swallowed up in a bureaucracy of grant applications, strategy guidebooks, and national summits with 1,000 community leaders.

The statement says that the administration is “disappointed” that the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program will get only $1.8 billion, and that the Access to Recovery Treatment Voucher Program will get “only” $100 million. The statement demands that the Corporation for National and Community Service be “fully funded,” else Congress “would deny thousands of Americans the opportunity to participate in national service.” This sounds like the sort of liberal carping that one would expect from Ted Kennedy.

The administration should be supporting conservatives in Congress who actually want to get federal spending under control. Yet Bush wants to show that he is “compassionate” with his conservatism. But big‐​time social spending sure isn’t compassionate to federal taxpayers.

What is also disturbing about this administration’s budget policies is that “reforms” always seem to cost taxpayers more money. For example, the administration’s statement applauds Congress for spending an added $129 million on Medicare appeals, but then asks that the process be “streamlined.” Shouldn’t a streamlined process save taxpayers money, not cost them more? Similarly, Medicare reform is supposed to be about cutting costs to avert the program’s coming financial crisis. In theory, prescription drugs should cut costs by reducing hospital stays. Yet taxpayers are getting walloped with an added $400 billion burden over the next 10 years because of the Medicare drug “reform” plan.

We saw the same thing with the president’s education reforms. Education Department outlays have ballooned 65 percent in just three years. Now, the administration’s policy statement on the appropriation bill urges Congress to “provide the full request” for a superfluous Mentoring of Middle School Students program, which is claimed to help kids make a “successful transition from elementary to secondary school.”

Since coming to office, the administration has been running a strangely compartmentalized budget policy — letting Americans keep more of their money on the tax side, but steadily building up the welfare state on the spending side. That political strategy won’t work much longer because spending is ultimately a taxpayer issue. Higher spending pushes up the deficit and creates a looming threat of higher taxes down the road.

Higher spending also threatens the president’s own tax‐​cutting legacy because liberals in future congresses will no doubt use the high deficit as an excuse to demand that the Bush tax cuts be allowed to expire. In addition, further tax reforms will be that much more difficult unless spending is controlled and budget room created.

The administration’s high‐​spending strategy makes the Republicans vulnerable to charges of fiscal irresponsibility by the Democrats. Conservatives in Congress need the president’s leadership to try to cut unneeded welfare‐​state programs. What they don’t need is the administration’s constant griping that pet projects are “underfunded.”

Chris Edwards and Tad DeHaven

Chris Edwards is the director of fiscal policy and Tad DeHaven is a policy researcher at the Cato Institute.