EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial appears in the February 23, 2004, issue of National Review.
President Bush–and Washington politicians generally–have been acting in recent years as though voters do not care about profligate spending. But conservative voters care, and they have grown more and more upset by rising federal spending. For many conservatives, the breaking point came when Bush signed a Medicare bill that was supposed to increase spending by $400 billion over the next ten years. Conservative opponents of the bill predicted the price tag would be even larger than that. At the end of January, the Bush administration acknowledged that they were right: The true cost would probably be closer to $534 billion. Other conservatives gave Bush a pass, on the theory that the public demand for a prescription-drug coverage was too strong to resist. But this excuse could not apply to Bush’s proposal for a mission to Mars or for an expansion of the National Endowment for the Arts–neither of them coupled with compensatory spending cuts.
The NEA may be a small fraction of the budget, but its import is larger than the numbers suggest. Conservatives have been trying to abolish it for over a decade, and the struggle over it became a key test of the relative strength of populist conservatism and the Washington establishment. (It sometimes seems as though every congressional spouse is on the board of an arts group that gets NEA money.) The administration appears to believe that the program is now worthy of extra funding because it is under good management and will no longer direct subsidies to tediously transgressive art. We have confidence in the good judgment of NEA chairman Dana Gioia. But even if we assume, implausibly, that future administrations will install equally sound managers, why should the subsidization of art be a federal function at all? It would be a mistake for the administration to stop asking that question of such programs to pat itself on the back for its managerial skills.
Some conservatives contend that we should not worry about federal spending. Daniel Casse, writing in Commentary, argues that spending cuts “are far less important to economic health than is the promotion of growth.” That is true; even tautologous. But spending cuts would be good for the economy insofar as federal spending–whether financed by taxes or borrowing–represents a federal claim on resources that would otherwise remain in the private sector. There are also non-economic reasons for wanting to restrain federal spending: not least that such spending encourages an unhealthy dependence of the citizenry on the federal government.
Both of the preceding points suggest that conservatives ought to be keeping an eye on spending, not on deficits. We agree with the administration when it says that current deficits are manageable in relation to the size of the economy. We agree, as well, that increased economic growth will go some way toward reducing those deficits. But the federal government has been growing faster than the economy in recent years. Absent the political decision to restrain spending, there is every reason to think that faster growth will merely lead to even more profligacy. The Republicans promise to cut the deficit in half over the next five years. They should promise instead to cut, or at least restrain the growth of, spending.
That they made any promise is evidence that they are beginning to grow concerned about the restiveness of conservatives. President Bush’s new budget is restrained, compared with his previous ones. He says he will keep tight control of that fraction of the budget called domestic discretionary spending. He also says that he will reform the budget process. In the future, proposals for spending will have to be offset by proposals for cuts. Bush’s aides have sent a welcome signal by threatening a veto of the highway bill. (Bush wants to spend $256 billion on it, while the Senate wants $311 billion and the House $375 billion.) Bush will have to make that threat himself–and be willing to act on it, even in an election year.
But there is much more the president and congressional Republicans could do. The new budget excludes funding for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The amount of spending necessary there may be unpredictable, but surely some minimum level could be set aside in the budget. If we truly are at war–as the president and we believe–surely some domestic spending should be sacrificed to finance it. (The Democrats will say that tax cuts should be sacrificed, too. But Republicans should simply respond that they do not wish to damage the economy, and relish the ensuing debate.)
Congress should conduct a long-overdue house cleaning of the appropriations committees. The budget reforms should include a mandatory freeze for domestic programs that cannot pass an audit of their existing spending. The Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and all the rest of the subsidies to corporations should be ended.
There are two more steps the president should take. To rebuild his credibility on spending, Bush should forthrightly admit that spending has been growing too fast. And he should demonstrate a real commitment to enacting a free-market reform of Social Security early in his second term. Conservatives are, and should be, willing to tolerate some excess spending today if they can look forward to reforms that will constrain the growth of government tomorrow. But there is no substitute for political leadership that is willing, sometimes, to say no.