Grave matters

Posted: Feb 01, 2004 12:00 AM

Gravediggers have a maxim that every politician should ponder: Never dig a hole deeper than you can climb out of.

Since politicians are usually pretty keen on their own interests, if not the interests of their country, you'd think that this maxim would be redundant, not necessary in the slightest.

But, given current trends in Republican-controlled Washington, you'd be wrong.

The Republicans are digging themselves in deep, and burying the country with them. How? By abandoning their stated beliefs in small government and fiscal responsibility. Or, to get back to my metaphor, they are up to their neck in debt, and yet they keep digging.

A Sorry Record

The big political news focuses on other matters right now: war and the upcoming presidential election. Despite the polls, which show George Bush vulnerable, most Republicans seem pretty confident--many even revel at the prospect of Bush trouncing John Kerry next November. After all, Kerry, a rather wooden, aristocratic Northeastern liberal, and the favorite of Ted Kennedy, doesn't look all that impressive in the heartland and in the South. So to lots of Republicans, another four years of Bush seems almost inevitable.

But Republicans have something much bigger to worry about. Themselves.

Kerry may or may not be as big a spender as he (or any other Democratic candidate) will be portrayed. But the unfortunate truth is, George W. Bush is a Big Spender, too. The biggest--ever--by the numbers. With the gracious assistance of the Republican Congress, of course.

Now, you will remember that the Republicans blamed the Democratic majorities in Congress for the massive deficits of the Reagan-Bush years. But then along came a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and then a Republican-controlled Congress, and--voila!--for the first time in decades the American government showed some fiscal restraint. Well, actually government spending continued to grow at an alarming pace, but slower than GNP--so at last we could marvel at something like balanced budgets.

The Republicans then promised a conservative Nirvana were they to regain the Executive Branch. A newer, younger Bush campaigned as a man who understood that government couldn't do everything for everyone and that regular citizens could usually do better than government with the money in their pockets. George W. Bush entered the Oval Office and...all restraint went out the window.

This can be seen by the rise in the sheer size of the budget: $2.3 trillion, up 23.8 percent from Clinton's final budget year. No restraint there.

This can also be seen in the growth of programs once considered anathema to Republicans: under George W. Bush, the Education department is not only massively better funded, its programs are also far more intrusive, and more centralized at the national level than ever. They can't even spell restraint.

The needless and ridiculous and obnoxious National Endowment for the Arts, long attacked by Republicans in Congress, has seen its funding increase 17 percent. Still less restraint--and in dubious taste.

And, of course, this can be seen in the pork. The huge, rolling slabs of fat, juicy pork. No restraint in sight.

In the past two years, the most bizarre local projects imaginable have been funded. Shiitake mushroom research. A swimming pool clean-up. A rock 'n' roll Hall of Fame. An indoor rain forest to be built on an Iowa prairie. Millions of dollars for projects that are too numerous to mention here--though in my Common Sense e-letter, I do take pains to point out the worst of them.

The indecency of these programs lies not just in their bizarrerie. The sheer number of funded projects has increased by leaps: from under 2,000 a half decade ago to over 9,000 last year. And with their numbers, the dollar figures have leaped up, too: it was over $23 billion last year. Congress's discretionary spending--where you can find the pork--reached over $800 billion this year. The president and Tom DeLay insist that the increases are within the limits they've set for fiscal responsibility, but it turns out that that is only the case because they've fiddled with the numbers, and hidden some of this year's spending in last's years figures!

Proving, once again, that while you can trust a politician to spend, you can't expect him to tell the truth about it.

Why Why Why?

The pork is not the biggest part of the government by any means. But it is a good indicator of what politicians are up to. They are trying to keep their jobs.

The Republican-controlled House and Senate are equally to blame. Though President Bush can pretend to be aloof from and even disappointed in the congressional pork, note that he hasn't vetoed the bills that contain these indecencies, either. And besides, he has his own versions of pork, massive spending efforts that belie his alleged ideology and that are thrown into the political winds to deflect the wrath of his enemies or curry more favor with his friends. Last year's proposal to throw over a billion dollars at research into hydrogen automobiles? Last month's proposal to send a man to Mars? A cool $1.5 billion for the federal government to enter the marriage-counseling business? These put Bush smack-dab in the same camp as Congress, as the biggest of the Big Spenders.

In normal times, none of this would seem all that shocking, at least to the jaded observer. But these are not normal times. You might expect decent politicians facing war both abroad and on home soil to demand some sacrifices, some restraint. And in the name of balanced budgets, we'd hear firm talk of priorities. But we have none of that.

The Republican commitment to limited government has vanished air. All that remains is some rhetoric. There is no reality.

Recent announcements from the White House that they'll get tough on wasteful spending, if we'll just all "wait until next year," and that the deficit will be cut in half within five years are less than credible. Worse yet, this putting off till tomorrow the balancing that should be done today understandably casts suspicions against the administration's tax cuts. Tax cuts are good; money in the pockets of citizens is better than that same money flowing in and out of government coffers. But tax cuts without spending cuts increase debt, deferring taxes to some future time, perhaps the next generation. And it adds interest to injury. This cedes to the Democrats the moral high ground, and weakens the case against tax reduction now. It makes the mere mention of tax cuts seem irresponsible, a conspiracy against our children. Procrastination is not a matter of principle.

Which brings me back to the gravedigger's maxim. Bush and the congressional Republicans have rediscovered the joys of shoveling out the rich loam of government largesse to their interests. They've dug deep in order to continue doing so, to keep themselves in office.

But have they dug too deep? If Americans wake up some time before the next election, rub their eyes and see who's been shoveling what, and to where, why would they continue to vote for Republicans?

As a way to say thanks for making Bill Clinton look more responsible in retrospect?

The Bottom Line

So that's where we are. Neither major party has shown a scintilla of resolve for limited, common-sense government. Citizens who wish to rein in government effectively had better cease pinning their faith on one party, and look to more constitutional reforms--like term limits, voter initiative, balanced budget amendments, and the like.

Years ago, a Democratic president said that the days of Big Government were over. He was lying. But what is President Bush's excuse? And how shall the congressional Republicans explain? Between now and November, more Americans may demand an honest accounting.