Get ready for the interest groups and beneficiaries to squeal, scream, cry and ultimately demean. The issue? Why, President George W. Bush's "lean" 2006 budget. Americans want their welfare state.
The president's budget, excluding defense, homeland security and entitlements, calls for a 1 percent decrease from 2005. (Bush's total 2006 budget is a 7 percent increase over his 2005 budget.) The latest budget includes the elimination of, or "cuts" in, over 150 programs.
Now, understand. Cuts in Washington usually mean lowering the projected increases. Take, for example, NASA, the U.S. Space Agency. The president proposes $16.45 billion for NASA in 2006. That's a 2.4 percent increase over what the government is spending this year on the program. But it is $500 million less than what the space agency was expecting for 2006. So, NASA is listed as one of the 154 programs facing extinction or "drastic spending reductions." Only in Washington does a decrease in the proposed increase equal a spending cut.
But the true "discretionary" part of the budget -- excluding entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Food Stamps and interest on the debt -- amounts to only about 36 percent of the budget. And the three biggest entitlement programs -- Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security -- remain, without dramatic changes, on automatic pilot.
But did the Founding Fathers ever intend for the federal government to involve itself in education, health care or retirement benefits? The answer, quite clearly, is no. The Constitution, in Article I, Section 8 -- which contains the "general welfare clause" -- seeks to restrain federal government, not expand it. Section 8 begins, "The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States," and then goes on to specify these powers. Does this allow the federal government to do anything it wants to promote the general welfare? Not according to Founding Father James Madison, also known as the father of the Constitution. When Congress appropriated $15,000 to assist French refugees in 1792, Madison wrote, "I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution, which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents." About the general welfare clause, Madison said, "With respect to the words general welfare, I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers (enumerated in the Constitution) connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators."
Congressman Davy Crockett [Whig-Tennessee] told a reporter in 1834 that he learned about limited government the hard way. Crockett, back from Washington, D.C., where he had voted in favor of $20,000 relief for victims of a large Georgetown fire the previous winter, encountered a local constituent plowing his field. The farmer, giving Crockett a cold reception, admitted voting for Crockett previously, but said, "You had better not waste your time or mine. I shall not vote for you again." The farmer then lectured Crockett on the Constitution, demanding to know where the document grants the authority to give away public money in charity. After a lengthy discussion of law and principle, Crockett returned to Washington a changed man. He later stood up in the House when a bill was taken up for an appropriation for a naval officer's widow. Crockett eloquently explained to his fellow members that the Constitution did not allow such appropriations of public funds, however, they could each reach into their pockets to give the widow any amount they desired. The bill, which was expected to pass easily, failed.
For a look at the damage done by a welfare state, turn to Europe. The European Union's double-digit unemployment and lower productivity result from Europe's cradle-to-the-grave, the-state-owes-me, there-is-such-a-thing-as-a-free-lunch welfare state. In 2003, President Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic -- then a candidate for European Union membership -- said Europeans have yet to realize "they are not moving toward some sort of nirvana. . . . [T]hey are still in the dream world of welfare, long vacations, guaranteed high pensions and cradle-to-grave social security. . . . The enemies of free societies today are those who want to burden us down again with layer upon layer of regulations. We had that in communist times. But now if you look at all the new rules and regulations of EU membership, layered bureaucracy is staging a comeback."
So here we are. The communist Soviet Union collapses, and one of its former states -- now free -- criticizes the welfare state. Next thing you know, a country like, say, Russia, will institute a 13 percent flat tax. Wait a minute . . .