Politics & Policy

Wanted: Small-Government Republicans

Trump takes the stage in Oskaloosa, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty)
We haven’t heard much in the campaign so far about serious spending cuts.

For anyone hoping that the next president will get serious about reducing the size and cost of government, the early days of the campaign have been disappointing, to say the least. The Democrats, of course, have been campaigning as if Greece were a model rather than a warning. But what else can one expect from a party that has moved to the left of Barack Obama? The real disappointment has come from Republicans who seem intent on returning to the big-spending ways of the George W. Bush administration.

Start with the candidate of the moment, Donald Trump. Trump has made it clear that government spending in his administration would be, as The Donald would say, “yuuuge!” Trump’s answer to just about any problem facing the country is for the federal government to spend more money, which would be just fine because he would be the one spending it, and he knows how to do it right. For example, in the wake of the McCain “war hero” dustup, Trump penned an op-ed for USA Today promising to fix the problems with the VA hospitals. His solution: “I will build the finest and most modern veterans’ hospitals in the world.” Where would the money come from to build more hospitals? Trump doesn’t say.

Trump opposes any cuts to Social Security and Medicare — and Medicaid, for that matter. In April, at the New Hampshire Republican Leadership Summit, Trump criticized his fellow Republicans for proposing reforms of the entitlement programs that are bankrupting the country: “Every Republican wants to do a big number on Social Security, they want to do it on Medicare, they want to do it on Medicaid. And we can’t do that.” Medicare and Social Security alone face more than $69.1 trillion in unfunded liabilities, but Trump insists that the programs can be saved without cuts. “All these other people want to cut the hell out of it,” Trump said of Social Security. “I’m not going to cut it at all. I’m going to bring money in, and we’re going to save it.”

Donald Trump has plans to fix America’s ‘horrible infrastructure.’ Yes, this means more spending, but don’t worry, because ‘Nobody can do that like me. Believe me.’

Trump also wants to spend more on infrastructure. In the wake of the Philadelphia Amtrak crash in May, Trump blasted America’s “horrible infrastructure” and said: “We have to rebuild our infrastructure: our bridges, our roadways, our airports.” Yes, this means more spending, but don’t worry, because “Nobody can do that like me. Believe me.”

Nor should we forget that in the past Trump has supported all sorts of cockamamie big-government programs, including a Canadian-style single-payer health-care system. One can imagine that such a program just might cost a little bit of money.

Even Trump’s signature issue — building a wall along the border with Mexico — would cost a pile of money. Although projections vary widely, some studies have put the cost as high as $49 billion — and we should note that current attempts to seal parts of the border have run far above estimates. And no matter how good a negotiator Trump thinks he is, Mexico is not going to pay for it.

So where would Trump get the money for all this new spending? Cutting back on immigration will not save nearly enough. (Besides, immigrants, including illegals, are actually a net plus for Social Security and Medicare in the short term.) Perhaps that’s why Trump has been so open to new taxes. In the past he has called not only for new business taxes, but also for a 14.25 percent wealth tax on people with a net worth of more than $10 million.

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Unfortunately, Trump’s opponents have not been models of fiscal rectitude. For example, Mike Huckabee, who has been trying to match Trump’s rhetorical flourishes, is also matching his commitment to not cut Social Security or Medicare. Nor should one forget that, as governor of Arkansas, Huckabee had one of the worst spending records of any recent GOP governor. He earned a final overall grade of D on Cato’s fiscal report card, and the Club for Growth says that he increased state spending by 65.3 percent — three times the rate of inflation — and he increased the number of state government workers by 20 percent.

Other Republican candidates have been better on spending, but only somewhat. For example, both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have been open to entitlement reform and have called for cuts in government spending. But when the rubber met the road, both of these senators voted against pairing increases in defense spending with offsetting cuts in domestic programs. Instead, they backed defense increases that would have added almost $40 billion to the deficit. (Although Cruz voted against the amendment to offset defense hikes, it should be noted that he ultimately voted against the budget resolution as a whole.) And Rubio has joined all the GOP candidates except Cruz and Rand Paul in pledging fealty to farm-price supports.

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Jeb Bush has also brought up the need for entitlement reform and promised to be a budget cutter. Recently he pledged to cut the federal workforce by 10 percent within five years, by imposing a freeze on new hiring and replacing only one of every three federal workers who retire. This is a typical Bush proposal: a tiny step in the right direction, from a candidate who often seems temperamentally unwilling to push big ideas. And Bush’s spending record as governor of Florida was decidedly mediocre. As Chris Edwards, Cato’s fiscal analyst, has noted: “Jeb Bush was a prolific tax cutter, but he let spending rise quickly toward the end of his tenure. . . . Jeb was good on taxes, but apparently not so good on spending.” On Cato’s fiscal report card, he started off earning A’s and B’s, but had fallen to a C by the end of his second term.

#related#Chris Christie has made the need for entitlement reform a centerpiece of his campaign, but spending in New Jersey has gone up during his time in office, increasing 15 percent from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2015. New Jersey also has the fifth-highest debt and unfunded pension liabilities per capita in the nation. And it has spent $5 billion in economic-development subsidies since Christie took office. Scott Walker has a decent but not unblemished spending record in Wisconsin (state spending increased by 15 percent from 2012 to 2015), but lately he seems to be taking fewer specific positions on issues than Hillary Clinton. John Kasich was a budget hawk in Congress, but as governor of Ohio he has increased spending for everything from Medicaid expansion to education to job training. Ohio general-revenue spending has risen 18 percent during Kasich’s tenure. That leaves Rand Paul, who, as would be expected from a libertarianish candidate, has been a staunch opponent of government spending; however, he has seemed determined to talk about anything but spending during this campaign.

In short, the 2016 campaign is still waiting for a budget cutter. That’s not going to be Donald Trump. And, so far, it hasn’t been anyone else either.

Michael TannerMr. Tanner is the director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Poverty and Inequality in California and the author of The Inclusive Economy: How to Bring Wealth to America’s Poor.


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