The grand old spending party
by Jeff Jacoby
THE 1994 CONGRESSIONAL ELECTIONS that swept them into power, Republicans declared in the Contract with America, were a mandate to "transform the way Congress works." Accepting that mandate, they promised a transformation that would bring about "the end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public's money."
The first item on their agenda was to control the federal budget. "Isn't it time we hold Congress accountable for how much they spend -- and for what?" the GOP asked. "The American people demand resonsibility from Congress. The spending madness must stop."
How sweetly quaint those words sound today.
The "spending madness" in fiscal 1994, the last year that Congress was controlled by Democrats, totaled $1.46 trillion. Outlays in fiscal 2000 will add up to roughly $1.74 trillion. In the space of six years, the bloated federal government will have grown by nearly one-fifth.
Early in 1995, the House Budget Committee released a list of 300 unnecessary federal agencies and spending programs that were going to be "zeroed out" of existence. The feckless Department of Education, Jimmy Carter's payoff to the teachers unions, was on the list. The Department of Commerce, home office of corporate welfare as we know it, was on the list. The Economic Development Administration, a vast barrel of government pork, was on the list. The scandal-plagued National Endowment for the Arts was on the list.
Not one was abolished. Virtually every money pit on the Budget Committee's roster made it through unscathed; most devour more tax dollars today than they did in 1995. The Economic Development Administration's budget has jumped from $350 million then to $438 million now. The Commerce Department budget has grown from $3.4 billion to $4.8 billion. And the Department of Education, which Republicans have inveighed against since its creation, has gotten a raise of more than $3 billion since the Republicans took over.
"Today there is no strategy and no will power to cut anything out of the budget," the Cato Institute's Stephen Moore has written. "Not maple syrup research grants, not Jimmy Carter's home heating subsidies, not military funding to build skating rinks in Alaska, not taxpayer handouts to Fortune 500 companies. Nothing."
Rarely has a political party failed more comprehensively to translate its platform into reality. In 1997 and 1998, the GOP-controlled Congress passed budgets that actually spent more money than Bill Clinton had requested. And this is the party that is supposed to stand for leaner government and keener bookkeeping.
For the first few months of 1995, Republicans did try to practice what they had preached for so long. But with Clinton's propaganda victory over the government shutdown, GOP morale collapsed. Ever since, the party's small band of fiscal conservatives has been routed at every turn.
"Oh, it can be frustrating," says John Ashcroft, a Missouri senator who in 1998 tested the waters for a possible White House run. "The constituencies for federal spending are aggressive," and almost impossible to beat back absent a tax cut deep enough to reduce the flow of dollars into Washington. Last year Ashcroft developed an economic plan that would have reduced federal taxes by $1.7 trillion over five years. By comparison, the tax cut pending in Congress now -- less than $800 billion over 10 years -- is small beer.
Last fall the Republican Congress enacted a monster transportation bill -- at $214 billion, the most obese public works package in US history. It was stuffed with pork, 1,467 "demonstration" projects for members of Congress to brag about back home. To get the bill passed, the leadership resorted to naked vote buying. In a memorable column, Robert D. Novak quoted the voice-mail message phoned in to one congressman's office by an aide to Representative Bud Shuster, the Transportation Committee chairman:
"We had notified you that there was $10 million in the bill for your boss. We're upping that by $5 million, so you have $15 million, and I'm trying to figure out where you want to put the new money, the new $5 million." A few GOP backbenchers refused to be bought. But only a few.
Four and a half years into the Republican "revolution," Capitol Hill burns through taxpayers' money more greedily than ever. The Senate has just passed a $7.4 billion "emergency" farm bill, "showering cash," The Washington Post reported, "on farmers of grain, soybeans, livestock, dairy cows, tobacco, cotton, and 'specialty crops.' " This comes less than a year after the last "emergency" farm bill, which poured $6 billion into farmers' pockets -- and less than four years after Congress enacted the Freedom to Farm Act, which was supposed to put an end to these subsidies. The latest bill bestows $500,000 on pig waste management in North Carolina, $63,000 on goat research in Texas, and $5.2 million on wood use research in Maine. Some emergencies.
"I'm going to build me" -- this is Willie Stark in All the King's Men -- "the God-damnedest, biggest, chromium-platedest, formaldehyde-stinkingest free hospital and health center the All-Father ever let live. Boy, I tell you, I'm going to have a cage of canaries in every room that can sing Italian grand opera, and there ain't going to be a nurse hasn't won a beauty contest at Atlantic City and every doorknob will be 18-carat gold, and by God, every bedpan will have a Swiss music box attachment to play 'Turkey in the Straw' or 'The Sextet from Lucia,' take your choice."
All the King's Men is fiction, but Willie Stark is all too real. So far Congress hasn't appropriated funds for musical bedpans. But then, the House hasn't gotten to the farm bill yet.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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