The inability — or the unwillingness — of congressional Republicans to limit the growth of government has been a source of considerable frustration for fiscal conservatives. Shortly after the 1994 election, many conservatives hoped that Republicans would fulfill their campaign promises to end scores of federal programs and eliminate Cabinet agencies. However, just a few years later the Republican National Committee was sending out press releases boasting about record increases in federal education spending. Even worse, in 2004 the same Republican leadership ruthlessly twisted arms and violated House procedural rules to pass the Medicare prescription-drug bill, the largest increase in entitlement spending since the Great Society.
Stephen Slivinski’s new book, Buck Wild: How the Republicans Broke the Bank and Became the Party of Big Government, describes this transformation. The book begins with President Reagan’s bruising battle to pass the 1981 budget, which included substantial cuts in both taxes and spending. This was one of the most important victories of the Reagan presidency, as Reagan was never again able to enact substantial cuts in expenditures. Still, Reagan was at least fairly successful in limiting the growth of government. In fact, non-defense discretionary spending actually declined relative to inflation during the 1980s.
Unfortunately, Reagan’s legacy has been lost on his successors. President Bush’s tax hike in 1990 betrayed many fiscal conservatives. Furthermore, after Republicans won control of both the House and Senate in 1994, they seemed poised actually to reduce the size of government. In fact, in 1995 Congress passed a budget that cut non-defense domestic spending for the first time since 1981. However, after a conflict with President Clinton over Medicare, Republican congressional leadership lost all interest in reducing spending. Sadly, this trend has continued well into the presidency of George W. Bush. Overall, during the Bush administration, spending has grown faster than at any time since the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Even worse, many agencies which have received large budgetary increases are not even remotely related to the war on terror.
This inability of Republicans to limit spending causes Slivinski to argue for divided government. Slivinski provides statistical evidence that federal spending actually grows more slowly during times of divided government. Furthermore, he argues that two of the most important political victories for fiscal conservatives, the 1981 budget and the 1986 Tax Reform Act, were passed during times of divided government. In fairness, both of these bills were passed partly because Democrats suffered stinging electoral defeats in both the 1980 and 1984 presidential elections. Regardless, Slivinski convincingly argues that Republicans have done little to promote fiscal discipline despite controlling both the Congress and the presidency for the past five years.
Now despite the pessimistic nature of the book, there are actually some silver linings. First, many of the Republican House members who led the charge for limited government after the 1994 election have not suffered politically. To the contrary, many of them are doing very well. Sam Brownback and Tom Coburn have been elected to the U.S. Senate from Kansas and Oklahoma, respectively. Furthermore, Congressman John Shadegg of Arizona was a candidate for House Majority Leader and now serves as the chair of the Republican Study Committee. In fact, these men are enjoying better political fortunes than their onetime adversaries in the House leadership, including Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, and Tom Delay, all of whom are no longer serving in elected office.
Perhaps even more importantly, Slivinski provides numerous examples of how a relatively small number of Republican House members have been able to exert enough political pressure on their colleagues to enact some reductions in spending, in part thanks to the slim Republican congressional majorities. For instance, the defection of about a dozen conservative members on a procedural vote in 1995 gave them some leverage to push for larger cuts in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Furthermore, the willingness of the Republican Study Committee to publicly criticize the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska resulted in some additional reductions in spending. Perhaps the presence of additional fiscal conservatives in the House could restore the Republican Party’s legacy as the party of limited government.
Overall, Slivinski does a fine job providing an overview of the leftward shift in fiscal policy preferences among the leadership of the Republican Party. More time could have been devoted to the congressional effort to reform Medicare in 1995, which marked the last time Republican House leadership made a real effort to cut spending. Furthermore, more attention could have also been paid to the inability of Gramm Rudman Hollings Act, PAYGO rules, and other institutional mechanisms to control the growth of government. All in all, however, these are relatively minor complaints. By concisely detailing how the leadership of the Republican party has abandoned limited government and showing the need for fiscal conservatives to look elsewhere for possible political strategies, Slivinski has performed a fine service for his readers.
– Michael J. New is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama.