There was a hint of 1980s nostalgia in the way lawmakers reacted to President Bush's latest budget plan. Leading Democrats updated their hoary denunciations of President Reagan's budgets while most Republicans hit long-forgotten Reaganesque notes as they defended Bush's vision on tax burdens, spending levels and national security.
To most Democrats, Bush wants to spend too little on social programs and too much on national security. Plus, they allege, he bestows enormous tax cuts on the undeserving "rich."
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) faulted the President for "placing a higher priority on huge tax cuts for multi-millionaires than on urgent national needs." Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) asserted he seeks to "hand out favors for the oil and gas industry while eroding health coverage for children and seniors." To George Miller (D.-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, "the cuts in this budget for students with disabilities and for young children are reprehensible." But Rep. Pete Stark (D.-Calif.) walked home with the trophy when he claimed "the President is declaring war on us and the poor people in this country."
Some leading Democrats have even revived 1984 Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale's clarion call for higher taxes. Last week, Sen. Kent Conrad (D.-N.D.) angrily gaveled a Senate Budget Committee hearing to a close after top White House budget official Rob Portman refused to endorse Social Security tax increases. The Senate's top tax writer, Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D.-Mont.), bemoaned the so-called "tax gap" -- the widespread (and presumably criminal) tax avoidance that supposedly deprives Washington of up to $300 billion in tax " he said, "to … make sure that unpaid taxes are collected to fund America's priorities."
The Mondale revival isn't restricted to musings on Capitol Hill. Last week Democratic presidential aspirant John Edwards proudly advocated a mind-boggling $100+ billion annual tax increase during the following exchange with "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert:
RUSSERT: Would you be willing to raise taxes in order to pay for [your universal health care plan]?
EDWARDS: Yes, we'll have to raise taxes. The only way you can pay for a health care plan … that costs anywhere from $90 to $120 billion is there has to be a revenue source.
Meanwhile, Democrats vowed to increase spending on a wide variety of programs. In a typical floor speech, freshman Democrat Jason Altmire (D.-Pa.) excoriated Bush's budget not only as "fiscally irresponsible" for spending too much, but also "morally irresponsible" for spending too little. He singled out "cuts" to health programs, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, terrorism funding, the COPS program, renewable energy programs, and corporate welfare subsidies such as the advanced technology program.
Republicans counterattacked well at times, but they could still use a Reagan refresher course.
The senior Republican on the House Budget Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.), did the best job defining the terms of the debate: "Our budget challenge is not that working Americans are sending us too little of their hard-earned money. It's that the federal government is spending too much of it, [and] too fast to be sustained." House Republican Leader John Boehner (R.-Ohio) reminded us that "raising taxes now will … increase the family tax burden" and "have devastating consequences on our robust economic growth." Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.) laid down his own marker: Congress should be "slowing the growth of government rather than slowing the growth of the economy."
These are but the first sectarian skirmishes in what will be a protracted war. Next month, Democrats will unveil their own budget plan. From it, we will learn whether they really intend to revisit the ideological battles of the 1980s. Do they truly want to increase taxes, and if so, on whom? Will they propose massive increases in spending on social programs, or expansive new federal regulatory schemes? What about serious entitlement reforms? Will they ratify the President's call for a double-digit increase in defense spending?
Nothing is more likely to reunite the fractured and dispirited legions of conservative voters, and revive Republican fortunes on Capitol Hill and beyond, than a return to these timeless and foundational debates -- bigger v. smaller government, higher v. lower taxation, and strong v. weak national defense.
As President Reagan once said, "Government does not tax to get the money it needs; government always finds a need for the money it gets." Let's find a way for it to get less.
Michael Franc who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations.
First appeared in Human Events