Big Spending: Always in Season

Rich Tucker
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Posted: Jan 08, 2010 1:05 PM
Big Spending: Always in Season

Doctors need to do two things: correctly diagnose a problem and then prescribe the correct solution. The same goes for political pundits. Ezra Klein is halfway there.

In the Washington Post recently, Klein noted that California’s budget crisis is a warning. Klein, however, points the finger in the wrong direction: at the “minority party” (Republicans) that refuses to “cast aside” its “bickering” even though the state faces “an emergency.” “California is in a total fiscal crisis,” Klein writes. Yet, he claims, “It’s had to slash state services to the bone and will have to cut further.” This is something of a mantra on the left -- to insist that government spending has been “slashed,” and always “to the bone.”

But has it?

In the 2009 budget, California lawmakers planned to spend $62 billion on education, up from $39.1 billion in 2001. The entire state budget has jumped to $131 billion in 2009, from $99 billion in 2001. Maybe lawmakers could dust off that 2001 budget and use it as a starting point -- there’s $40 billion in savings right there.

But lawmakers never bother to discuss cutting spending. In good times (when more tax revenue is flowing in) and bad (when Keynesians wrongly insist government spending can boost the economy), governments spend more each year. Klein doesn’t see it that way. “No one who watched the health care bill wind its way through the legislative process believes Congress is ready for the much harder and more controversial cost-cutting that will be necessary in the future,” he writes.

Well, the passive voice ignores the fact that one of the biggest backers of Congress’ health “reform” package is: Ezra Klein. He’s used his perch at the Post to stump repeatedly for big spending on health care.

Also, Klein writes that since the early 1990s, “Congress has been virtually incapable of doing anything difficult because the minority party will either block it or run against it.” But if the problem our country faces is an explosion in spending (and that’s exactly what Klein says in this piece), it isn’t “obstructionism” to block a massive (and unwanted and unconstitutional) entitlement bill -- it’s only common sense.

The logic behind the Senate health bill is that the federal government can save a few hundred billion dollars by spending more than a trillion. If you believe that, I’ve got some swamp land in California to sell.

Big spending happens because lawmakers engineer a steady progression of things that “have to” pass. Klein cites raising the debt ceiling as an example. “Generally, this is a bipartisan vote, as the debt is a bipartisan creation. This year, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly told Majority Leader Harry Reid that if he wants an increase in the ceiling, he owns it and needs to find the votes for it,” Klein writes.

It’s a neat trick -- make conservatives responsible for spending they opposed. The country could also avoid raising the debt ceiling if lawmakers would slash spending. But that option never seems to come up in Congress.

This technique is baked in to health care policy. To make their numbers work, the Senate vowed to slash the amount Medicaid pays doctors by 20 percent. That’ll never happen, of course. Lawmakers will pass a “doc fix” bill separately, so they can claim the cost isn’t part of health reform. When that bill comes up, liberals will insist that conservatives join them in passing it, or accuse them of “obstructionism” and being in favor of cutting doctor pay.

Meanwhile, Klein raises a question that’s already been answered. “What happens when one of the two major parties does not see a political upside in solving problems and has the power to keep those problems from being solved?” Consider national security.

“President Bush’s War Has Cost Our Country Dearly,” was the title of an entry on the Democratic Caucus’s Senate Journal on Feb. 28, 2008. “This is George Bush’s war,” Sen. Harry Reid, then the Minority Leader, declared in June 2006. He was echoed by future Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “This is George Bush’s war,” she announced in 2007.

We’ve seen the opposite dynamic in Congress under this president. When Barack Obama announced a surge of sorts to Afghanistan, his policy enjoyed more support on the right than on the left. Mature conservatives understand presidents don’t fight wars. Countries do. The U.S. can, must and will prevail in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and conservative support will be a big reason why.

As for spending, Klein concludes that “solving our fiscal problem is a mixture of easy arithmetic and hard choices, but until we solve our political problem, both are out of reach.” He should start by explaining where he’d begin cutting spending. That would be a prescription that would, deservedly, win conservative support.

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Rich Tucker is senior writer at The Heritage Foundation, heritage.org.