D. Dowd Muska


Limited Government’s Warring Camps

December 19, 2013

The budget deal reached by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) isn’t worthy of an iota of analysis. We’ve seen it all before -- no efficiencies are imposed on the Pentagon, not a single bureaucracy will be axed, corporate welfare continues, and the mushrooming cost of “entitlements” remains on autopilot.

But Washington’s latest bipartisan atrocity illuminated a significant division within the limited-government movement. The conflict deserves attention, as the nation’s fiscal reckoning draws nearer.

The struggle is between incrementalists and purists. The former believe that the best approach is to elect, and then support, the right kind of Republicans. The latter wage total war on federal spending, no matter which party controls the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives, what the polls indicate, or how close it is to election day.

The American Enterprise Institute (cut expenditures, as long as they’re not weapon systems) offered the deal a lukewarm blessing. The think tank’s James Pethokoukis argued that it “likely avoids a politically disastrous -- for Republicans -- government shutdown” and “leaves the sequester trajectory intact.”

Grover Norquist was on board, too. Beltway establishmentarians despise the hyperkinetic president of Americans for Tax Reform, but he shocked many with his comment that since it didn’t raise taxes and preserved the sequester in the long run, “the package is one that fellow conservatives should support.”

Several of the biggest names in right-leaning media agreed. The Wall Street Journal considered the compromise “probably the best that the GOP could get considering Washington’s current array of political forces.” National Review wrote that there was “not much to celebrate here,” but neither was there “much to bemoan either.”

Hard-core budget-cutters saw things quite differently.

Heritage Action for America, the lobbying shop for the neoconservative Heritage Foundation, launched a fusillade before Ryan-Murray was formally announced. It could not “support a budget deal that would increase spending in the near-term for promises of woefully inadequate long-term reductions.” Americans for Prosperity denounced a “bad budget deal” that “cedes the high ground on government spending with barely even a whimper.” FreedomWorks warned that “when you trade immediate spending for future cuts, those future cuts have a way of never arriving.” The Club for Growth skewered Ryan-Murray as “a deliberate attempt to avoid modest, but much needed spending cuts in exchange for the promise of spending cuts in the future,” and urged that it be “vigorously opposed.” The Council for Citizens Against Government Waste voiced its displeasure with “a proposal that violates the statutorily mandated budget caps and sends taxpayers a message that lawmakers are incapable of reducing spending.” Republicans weren’t different from Democrats, the Cato Institute’s Doug Bandow sighed, in “tossing … cash at ravenous interest groups” to secure votes.

So there it is. One faction accepts political realities, savors minor triumphs, and prepares for ultimate victory after another election or two. However ideologically simpatico, its counterpoise isn’t patient, isn’t interested in conciliation, and doesn’t worry about the health of the GOP, because the crisis has arrived: The national debt is $17.3 trillion, and Washington’s unfunded liabilities are probably in the hundreds of trillions of dollars. The only escape from national bankruptcy is enactment of broad, deep spending cuts, now.

Which sect has the better playbook? It’s tempting to side the work-within-the-system crowd. Joe Sixpack and Jane Diet Coke don’t respond favorably to extremism. (Or, more accurately, what liberals portray as extremism.) You can’t beat something with nothing, and “no, no, no!” isn’t much of an agenda.

But incrementalism hasn’t worked, either. Ronald Reagan couldn’t defund Jimmy Carter’s Department of Education. The Gipper ballooned the national debt, and the tax relief enacted during the “Decade of Greed” was underwhelming. (As a share of GDP, federal revenues dipped from 19.2 percent to 18.4 percent on Reagan’s watch.) Newt Gingrich’s “revolution,” originally promising, quickly fizzled. George W. Bush’s profligacy was epic. Federal outlays as a portion of GDP soared from 19.1 percent to 25.1 percent under W. No progress was made on Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. The national debt rose from $5.7 trillion to $10.6 trillion.

The forces of Unlimited Government are vast, networked, experienced, clever, and well-funded. Beating them, in meaningful ways, has proven impossible to date. That’s why the cleavage between incrementalists and purists matters.

The fiscal battles of the next few decades will make today’s squabbles over debt ceilings and taxing “the rich” look humdrum. It will take a sophisticated fusion of Grover Norquist-style canniness and the zeal of your local tea-party leader to reestablish limited, affordable government.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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