December 19, 2013
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
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.
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.”
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,
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.
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
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.
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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