Government's growth becoming an epidemic

December 19, 2005|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- Conservatives boast decisive power in both houses of Congress, they count the president as one of their own and they have vigorous champions throughout the news media. But the idea of reducing the size of the federal government is seen as it was in the 1960s, a ridiculous fantasy.

Big government struck the Republicans as a thoroughly pernicious phenomenon when it was controlled by liberal Democrats. Once it became their tool and their toy, they had a change of heart.

The latest congressional actions make it painfully obvious that Republicans no longer have the slightest desire to diminish the size, cost or power of the central government. Last month, amid a great deal of self-congratulation, the House voted to eliminate $50 billion in entitlement spending. That sounds impressive until you consider that this year Washington will spend some $2.6 trillion, and that these savings would be spread gently over five years.

For that matter, this plan doesn't actually cut total federal outlays. It merely reduces the annual rate of growth in entitlement spending from 5.4 percent to 5.2 percent.

Just because the people in charge like spending tax dollars, however, doesn't mean they like collecting them. They prefer to give voters goodies without insisting that voters pay for them. The House recently approved tax cuts worth $95 billion over the next five years - nearly double the spending cuts. So, under the best scenario, the deficit will grow and the government will continue to borrow enormous sums.

That has been the pattern under President Bush, who has done much to squander the budget surplus he inherited. Thanks largely to his tax cuts, federal receipts plunged in his first term. Some conservatives still entertain the idea that tax cuts pay for themselves. In inflation-adjusted terms, though, revenues are the lowest they have been since 1998.

But tax cuts were supposed to have another positive effect. For years, conservatives have said they would yield a smaller government through a process known as "starving the beast." Allow Congress less money to spend, they reasoned, and it would have to spend less.

If that were the case, big government would be pretty emaciated by now. Instead, the beast looks more like a product of the obesity epidemic. Since the GOP won control of the House in 1994, federal outlays have grown by nearly a third, after accounting for inflation.

As Cato Institute budget analyst Chris Edwards notes in his new book, Downsizing the Federal Government, Republicans have learned that shoveling out dollars is a lot more fun than pinching pennies. In the 1995-96 session of Congress, for every bill introduced to reduce outlays, there were two bills to increase outlays. By 2003-04, the imbalance had become positively grotesque - with 24 spending bills for every one bill to cut spending.

Republicans deserved a lot of the credit for the surpluses of the 1990s, which came about because they forced President Clinton to agree to balance the budget. In real terms, the deficit is bigger now than it was when they started.

Rhetoric aside, most Republicans in Washington secretly share the sentiment of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texan, who said in September that there was nothing left in the budget to cut. In fact, Mr. Edwards came up with more than 100 programs that could be reduced or eliminated, from farm subsides to the National Endowment for the Arts to Social Security, saving $380 billion a year.

Those cuts might be politically possible, though, if Americans understood that they are the only way to put the nation on a sound fiscal footing, avoid huge future tax increases and spare our children an immense burden of debt.

Republicans may no longer worry about such matters, but someone should.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is schapman@tribune.com.

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