The Democratic presidential contenders, in their most recent debate, spent much time condemning the new health bill. This was to be expected: people who are running for president do not pause to congratulate the incumbent president on new social legislation. What caught the eye was the peg every one of them used for the health measure. This, said Howard Dean–and everyone sang the same theme–was a private-interest piece of legislation. He and the others meant by this that the bill was motivated by a desire to help, or, rather, to truckle to, a single constituent entity. The candidates didn’t identify older people as the extortionate entity. One does not, when running for political office, say dark things about one-third of the American voting population. It is true that the bill seeks to help elderly Americans who are insufficiently protected from overbearing medical expenses, though the measure is so complicated, it is hard to sort out exactly who the beneficiaries will prove to be.
But everyone listening in on the Des Moines debate was expected to conclude that the drug companies are the profiteers from the current bill. No one seems to cavil at the assumption that new laws are exactly that, obeisances to private interests. Targeted patronage can’t be disguised when we are talking about a farm bill. Farmers are intended to benefit from farm bills. Steel tariffs are intended to help steel makers. What’s new and disturbing is that political figures don’t seem to cavil at linking legislation to “special interests.” Were the 274 congressmen and senators who voted for the health bill intending to oblige a private interest? It can of course be argued that any federal disbursement is a special interest disbursement, in that money is going to the few, taken from the many. The arts subsidy is exactly that; so is the forthcoming monument to the Twin Towers victims.
What is missing is the invocation of the commonweal. Yes, every congressman and every senator, defending every expenditure, possibly excluding arrant pork, will defend it as being of public, not private, interest. But more and more, one gets the impression that they are winking at us when they say it. The Republican party’s spokesmen don’t much bother to defend their votes. We have a Republican president who pledged to reduce public spending, and we have a Republican-dominated Congress with appropriations committee heads also pledged to reduce discretionary spending. They will tell you, on the hustings, that the spending increases are owing to the defense against terrorism. And they are right in part–military spending is up 34 percent in the last two fiscal years. Yet as a share of the economy, defense spending remains well below its highs of the 1980s. Then, the military took 6 percent of the GDP; now, only 3.8 percent.
It is the other stuff that mounts and mounts, and on top of these expenditures we have now locked in an estimated $400 extra billion for the revised Medicare program. Nobody with a first grade diploma believes the spending will stop at a mere $400 billion. The burden of the denunciations of the bill by the Democratic candidates was that it had not gone far enough in spending. Until the marginal aspirin is paid for, special interests–defined as potential voters for the Democratic presidential candidate-will not rest. The great epiphany will come only when a stray camera catches you giving an aspirin to your neighbor at the very same moment your neighbor is giving you an aspirin.
There is demoralization in the scene. Never mind that George W. promised to reduce federal spending: The fact of the matter is that he has not done so. What he has reduced is the use of the veto, reduced it to zero, the veto being the presidential instrument usable for good causes and bad, but indispensable to curb capricious exploitation of the public purse. For fiscal 2003, appropriators stuck 9,362 projects into the 13 appropriations bills, an increase of 12 percent over last year’s total. In two years, these projects have increased by 48 percent. Total pork, if correctly identified by Citizens Against Government Waste, adds up to $162 billion since the inauguration of Mr. Bush.
There are of course shoals out there. They are economic realities. They drain the value of the dollar and the vat of human enterprise. But there is something else to look out for, which is the credibility of democratic practice. If everybody preaches A while condoning B, you get not only inflated costs, but deflated confidence in democratic government.