Politics & Policy

Spendaholics

How we have reached this curious pass.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the October 24, 2005, issue of National Review.

To observe that President Bush is between a rock and a hard place on spending is not to make excuses for him. The prudent statesman generally tries to steer a course that does not strand him in such treacherous places. If Bush had acted to restrain the growth of federal spending in previous years, he would not now be facing demands from an angry conservative base to cut it. If he ignores those demands, his approval ratings–which suggest that conservatives are just about the only supporters he has left–may decline still further. Acceding to them, however, may further alienate other voters.

All conservatives have heard dismal statistics about the Republican record on spending. Here are a few more. Stephen Slivinski of the Cato Institute notes that federal spending, which had fallen from 20.7 percent of the economy to 18.5 percent while Bill Clinton was facing off against a Republican Congress, has climbed to 20.2 percent since Bush took office. Brian Riedl calculates that domestic spending–spending excluding defense and homeland security–has risen from 12.8 percent of GDP in 2001 to 14.5 percent in 2005. That’s higher than it was in 1995, when it was 13.5 percent. And all of this is before an expensive prescription-drug entitlement starts running.

Congressional Republicans deserve at least as much blame as the president for this explosion. House Republicans have been telling a fanciful version of recent history in which the president forced them to enact a new budget-busting program to subsidize prescription-drug coverage for the elderly. Yet congressional Republicans by and large came out for this program even before Bush took office. And when Bush aides initially suggested that the new program should be accompanied by substantial market-based reforms to Medicare, it was House leaders who shot down the idea. Bush’s Social Security plan included a more than $10 trillion spending cut (in present-value terms). Many of the congressmen and pundits–including conservatives–who are carping about “Bush’s spending” didn’t exactly lend him support.

Yet Bush could have done more to make Congress spend less. In 2002, for example, he could have vetoed the farm bill. Congress would have passed a new version that was only slightly less awful, but the president would have established a limit past which Congress could not go. After five years without a veto, nobody takes the president’s veto threats seriously any more–and Bush has thus effectively surrendered one of his constitutional checks on congressional log-rolling . . .

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Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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