Perhaps the most significant trend as the current congressional session lumbers toward an end — a December session to pass an omnibus $820-billion spending bill is still in the offing — is the extent to which the Republican Party under President Bush and the current congressional leadership has become the party of big spending.
Was it as recently as 1994, when the Republicans attained a majority in the House, that they promised a small-government “revolution?” The newly empowered advocates of limited government were going to consolidate departments and abolish useless ones like the Department of Energy. A new era of fiscal conservatism was at hand.
To be sure, that kind of rhetoric — combined with the partisan tendency to oppose most of the initiatives coming from a White House occupied by a Democrat — probably contributed to the fact that federal spending rose only modestly during the Clinton presidency. Some analysts date the economic surge of the 1990s (apart from what was attributable to the dot-com boomlet) to the coming of the Republican House majority. The markets knew that federal spending was likely to be restrained and responded accordingly.
Alas, with a Republican in the White House — one who has not yet vetoed a spending bill and is issuing veiled threats to do so in December only because of a disagreement over media ownership policy — restraint has been thrown out the window.
Spending during the Bush presidency has risen drastically, and not just because of increased military and foreign spending in the wake of 9/11. Non-military discretionary spending — domestic spending not dictated by entitlement formulas — rose by 8.5 percent last year, more than double the 4 percent cap the president vowed to enforce and about four times the rate of inflation.
Whenever the administration encountered resistance to a big-spending new program like the new Medicare entitlement Congress just approved or the energy bill that has been postponed, its knee-jerk response has been to offer even more spending to get congressional votes. Consequently almost every bill this year has been laden with unprecedented levels of “earmarks” — little projects for the home districts of congressmen and women of both parties.
Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Kansas Republican and avowed foe of big spending, for example, brags on his Web site that he brought home $150,000 for the Augusta Arts Council and “$180,000 to assist the city of Wichita in making the Evergreen Library more accessible.” Veterans’ benefits have been increased by $22 billion over 10 years. Peanut subsidies jumped from zero in 1998 to $1.5 billion. The Amtrak budget has doubled to more than $1 billion.
As David Bernstein, who participates in UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh’s collaborative blog, put it: “‘Compassionate conservatism’ seems to have turned out to be a replay of the Nixon strategy of buying off every conceivable interest group that is capable of being bought off by a Republican administration, while using social issues and conservative rhetoric to appease the Republican masses. Nixon, at least, had the excuse of governing in an era when liberalism was at its apex, and with the constraints imposed by the other two branches of government dominated by liberal Democrats. What is George Bush’s excuse?”