Jacob Sullum

The Nov. 6 National Review includes a brief article by American Enterprise Institute scholar Kevin Hassett titled "Where Clinton Beats W." The editors easily could have devoted an entire issue to the subject.

Hassett's specific topic is federal jobs, which shrank by 200,000 under Bill Clinton but have grown by 79,000 under George W. Bush. "Strange as it sounds," Hassett writes, "Clinton's record in this particular area is exemplary next to Bush's."

Does it really sound so strange? After six years of reckless statism under Bush -- the consequences of which have been documented in National Review articles and AEI studies, among other places -- it is now almost routine to see conservatives draw unfavorable comparisons between him and his predecessor. The near-nostalgia for Clinton among Republicans who reviled him speaks volumes about conservative disgust with the Bush administration, which could depress turnout enough to result in a Democratic takeover of one or both houses of Congress on Nov. 7.

Or so I hope. I'm eagerly anticipating a Republican defeat because the party richly deserves it after failing so miserably to deliver on its promises of smaller (or even slightly less gargantuan) government. The combination of a Democratic Congress and a Republican president could not possibly be worse, and might very well be better, than the current arrangement, in which a Republican executive and a Republican legislature conspire to mulct our money and filch our freedoms.

I know, I know: Bush cut taxes. But cutting taxes without restraining spending just postpones the pain, imposing a burden on future taxpayers who did not even make the mistake of trusting Republicans.

Bush and the Republican Congress turned Clinton's budget surpluses into deficits that peaked at $413 billion in fiscal year 2004. Federal spending as a share of GDP, which fell under Clinton to 18.5 percent, is again above 20 percent. Discretionary spending has increased faster under Bush than it did under Lyndon Johnson, no slouch in doling out taxpayer dollars. Earmarks have reached record levels, and the abuse of emergency spending bills is rampant.

Far from reforming entitlement programs, the Republicans compassionately created an exorbitant Medicare drug benefit that will add trillions of dollars to the program's long-term shortfall -- the gift that keeps on taking. Far from reducing the federal government's scope, they have extended its reach into state and local matters such as education, abortion, marriage law and end-of-life medical decisions.

Bush has either actively sought bigger government, as with the Medicare bill and the No Child Left Behind Act, or acquiesced in it, as with transportation spending and farm subsidies. Returning the favor, the Republicans who control Congress have acquiesced in the expansion of executive power, behaving as if they expect their party to control the White House forever.

It takes no leap of faith to believe that a Congress run by Democrats would be more inclined to impose limits on the president's surveillance, detention and war powers. Or to suggest that Bush might suddenly find his veto pen when confronted by free-spending Democrats instead of free-spending Republicans.

As the Cato Institute's William Niskanen points out, the only extended periods of fiscal restraint since World War II occurred during the Eisenhower and Clinton administrations, when different parties controlled the executive and legislative branches. "Government spending has increased an average of only 1.73 percent annually during periods of divided government," he writes in the October Washington Monthly. "This number more than triples, to 5.26 percent, for periods of unified government."

I am not expecting Democrats or Republicans to act on principle. I am counting on pure partisan perversity, the tendency to automatically resist whatever the other guys try to do, simply because they're the other guys. Blind team loyalty has brought us six years of unbridled growth in the federal government's size and scope. If the elections go right, the same mindless partisanship can put the bridle back on Leviathan.


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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