Pres. Barack Obama’s first two years in office were for the ages: Rarely has so much been spent so wantonly with so little discernible public benefit.
Nondefense discretionary spending accounted for $434 billion of the federal budget in 2008, without widespread deprivation or riots in the streets. This was the year that then-candidate Obama promised to scour the budget line by line for wastefulness and said in one of the presidential debates that his program would be a net spending cut.
In 2010, such spending was $537 billion of the budget, a 24 percent increase. Throw in the stimulus and its $259 billion of discretionary spending — a category that excludes entitlements — and the run-up is much higher. Most departments saw double-digit increases, and some saw triple-digit increases. For the federal government, 2008–2010 were the fat years.
Barack Obama’s personal style — emotionally buttoned up, abstemious in his habits (except for the smoking), and physically fit — is utterly at odds with his sloppy governance. Congress passed bills without knowing what was in them and took the recession as warrant to spend with no serious regard to merit or consequences. The resulting bursting-at-the-seams federal behemoth is about to have its turn on The Biggest Loser.
The election of 2010 wasn’t about the two parties getting along, although all things being equal many people would prefer that they did; it wasn’t about defeating incumbents, although many of them lost; it was about a simple three-word slogan that captured the essence of the Republican program: “Stop the Spending.”
Since the end of the Bush administration, the Democratic plaint has been that Republicans are shameless budget poseurs. They talk like fiscal hawks, but they never deliver. The Tea Party opposes government only in theory. This line of argument will soon be abandoned in favor of the charge that Republicans are waging an unprecedentedly cruel assault on the federal budget.
This is not Tom DeLay’s Republican Congress, fat and happy in Washington. It is fired with an ardor to deliver on its promise to limit government. Nearly 90 members of the Republican caucus are freshmen, shaped in the crucible of the tea party. In the context of the House Republican caucus, Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan — who has a far-reaching plan to reform taxes and entitlements — is practically the establishment.
The first order of business is to take nondefense discretionary spending back to 2008 levels. A two-year rollback doesn’t sound overly ambitious, even though it would represent more than a 20 percent cut in spending. This would be a spectacular feat, less like turning an ocean liner around than throwing it in reverse and backing it up. Every inertial force in Washington will resist this change.
House Republicans will have to match their zeal with strategic canny. The larger argument over the size of government in this country is far from settled. The Republican political goal must be to make a government-cutting agenda seem reasonable and practicable rather than the obverse of Obama’s spending recklessness. The temptation will be to try to win everything in one big throw, in a confrontation over raising the debt ceiling or shutting down the government. These are significant points of leverage, but ones that must be handled with care lest Republicans repeat the Newt Gingrich shutdown debacle of the mid-1990s.
As long as Republicans carry the public argument, the vistas of the possible will widen. If President Obama is unlikely ever to pronounce “the era of big government is over” like Bill Clinton (prematurely) did in 1995, he can’t persist in a mindless cataract of red ink, either. He’ll have to offer his own version of spending cuts, or explain why tax increases are preferable. Even he will declare the status quo intolerable.
After a carnival of spending, it is the Lenten season. It is time to reflect on and repent of our excess. The question is no longer how much more, it’s how much less. The binge is over.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, email@example.com. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.