GOP and Spending: Third Time’s A Charm?

October 28, 2010

And now, the real battle begins.

Not a Democratic White House vs. resurgent Republicans at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The GOP vs. the GOP.

With so much attention focused on the role tea-party activism is playing in the 2010 election, few pundits have leapt ahead to January. Early in the new year, Republicans will reveal whether they have an actual -- as opposed to a rhetorical -- commitment to reducing the size of the federal government.

Earlier this month, one soon-to-be-Senator made a remarkable claim about impending fiscal austerity. Utah’s Mike Lee, who ousted establishment GOPer Bob Bennett in May, claimed that Congress might send a balanced budget to the president, which “would require about a 40 percent cut.”

Not surprisingly, the Lee campaign immediately retreated from its candidate’s figure. A handler explained that Lee didn’t mean an across-the-board slash of 40 percent -- he was merely attempting to “show that the problem is big, and we need to begin a dialogue to address it.”

Whatever. The reality is that even at a time when the national debt approaches $14 trillion, a 4 percent reduction won’t be easy.

Mike Lee, meet future colleague Thad Cochran. In the last year alone, the Mississippi Senator (38 years in D.C.) has twice been named “Porker of the Month” by Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW). He earned the ignominy in April “for being the biggest porker in the 2010 Congressional Pig Book, the third consecutive year he has received this dishonor.” Cochran’s earmarks include: “$4,841,000 for wood utilization research; $1,608,000 for dietary supplements research; $1,000,000 for the University of Southern Mississippi for transitioning space technologies into the commercial sector; $850,000 for the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship; $231,000 for e-commerce; and $200,000 for the Washington National Opera.” 

Mike Lee, meet future colleague Chuck Grassley. In 2005, CAGW targeted the 36-year Iowa fedpol for “playing the lead role in adding $11 billion to a transportation bill already bursting with pork, pushing its cost to $295 billion over six years.” Matt Kibbe, of the advocacy group FreedomWorks, called him the “King of Pork” in 2008. They grow a lot of corn in Iowa, and Grassley vigorously defends the federal government’s ethanol boondoggle.

Mike Lee, meet future colleague Richard Shelby. Time in Washington: 32 years. The Alabama opportunist -- he switched from Democrat to Republican in 1994 -- despises what is probably the only smart policy the Obama administration has pursued: the scrapping of NASA’s over-budget and behind-schedule “Constellation” program. In January, Shelby thundered that the president’s plan to outsource transportation services to new, entrepreneurial space firms was “a welfare program for amateur rocket companies with little or nothing to show for the taxpayer dollars they have already squandered.” Shelby is perfectly content to continue space welfare for the giant, politically juiced corporations that employ so many of his Huntsville-area constituents.

As fun as it is to point out Republican pork and busy-work programs, relatively speaking, they don’t add up to much in a $3.7 trillion federal budget. The big money is in the military-industrial complex (depending on how one counts it, over $800 billion) and nationalized pensions and healthcare ($1.5 trillion). “Defense” contractors and homeland-security firms and agencies employ millions of voters. The greedy-geezer lobby is only growing in political power, with the retirement of Baby Boomers. And the poverty industry stands ready to demonize anyone who suggests curtailments in healthcare, housing, and energy-assistance subsidies. (Especially during a recession.)

Concentrated benefits, dispersed costs: Cutting government ain’t beanbag. In the modern era, Republicans had two chances to reduce federal spending. Both times they failed.

In the early 1980s, the Gipper was in the White House, the GOP ran the Senate, and with “boll weevil” Democrats, the House contained -- at least theoretically -- a pro-taxpayer majority. While the growth of non-defense “discretionary” (i.e., non-entitlement) spending slowed, the Pentagon’s budget ballooned, and there were no revenue-saving reforms of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

In the Gingrich-George W. Bush era, Republicans stopped even pretending to fight Big Government. The tech-driven, boom economy of the second half of the 1990s allowed congressional GOPers to gleefully spend along with Bill Clinton. Under Bush 41, the “war on terror” was also used to justify egregiously large government expansions, from agri-welfare to wasteful transportation projects.

A huge win in 2010, and a defeat of Obama in 2012, will give Republicans a third opportunity. Fiscal-restraint activists should make it clear that if the GOP blows it again, this time, they’re walking away for good.

D. Dowd Muska ( writes about government, economics, and technology. He lives in Broad Brook, Connecticut.

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