October 19, 2006 | Commentary on Federal Budget
Spending restraint is sound policy but awful politics. That's the conventional wisdom among a Republican congressional majority that, haunted by memories of the 1995 government shutdown and the demonization of former Speaker Newt Gingrich, views the electorate as various special interests selling their votes to whichever party offers the largest subsidies. As former Republican Party chairman Ed Gillespie once reportedly told the Manchester Union Leader, the American people want big government and the Republican Party has decided to provide it.
Accordingly, since 2001 federal spending has surged by 45 percent. GOP press releases exclaim "largest federal funding increase in history" for this or that program. And GOP Hill leaders -- in addition to criticizing Democrats for not spending enough -- distribute briefing packets urging lawmakers to brag about all the spending they bring home. Each budget-busting bill -- from education and farm subsidies to Medicare drugs and highways -- is sold as the final guarantor of a permanent GOP majority. Republicans opposing such spending are mockingly called the "minority caucus" by fellow lawmakers convinced that even minimal spending restraint would cost them the congressional majority.
Which begs the question: If runaway government spending is supposed to buy popularity, why has Congress' approval rating sank to a 12-year low of 24 percent? Why do so many pro-spending incumbents face uphill re-election battles?
Lawmakers have remarkably little political benefit to show for one of the largest spending sprees in American history.
They increased education spending by a staggering 137 percent since 2001 in hope of buying the "soccer mom" vote. Instead, the percentage of Americans preferring the GOP on education actually dropped from 41 percent to 33 percent.
Then, lawmakers created an $8.1 trillion Medicare drug entitlement in hope of buying enough senior votes to cement a permanent Republican majority. Instead, President Bush received only 976,000 more senior votes in 2004 than in 2000. That translates into $8.3 million in future taxes for every new vote gained. And new polls show that seniors feel, at best, ambivalent about the drug entitlement in its current form.
The budget-busting 2002 farm bill or the pork-laden 2005 highway bill didn't yield significant political payback, either.
Even pushing the number of annual pork projects from 2,000 to 14,000 since 1998 hasn't increased Congress' popularity or re-election rates at all. However, Congress' two leading pork opponents over the last decade, Republicans Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona and former Rep. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, were rewarded by seeing their own margins of victory widen in every successive re-election. Dr. Coburn later won a Senate seat.
Time after time, huge domestic spending initiatives have failed to provide the promised political utopia.
Republican lawmakers understood that a domestic spending spree would demoralize economic conservatives who consider spending a threat to the long-run sustainability of the prized Bush tax cuts. However, they assumed they could win more votes by appealing to more liberal voters who favor more education, anti-poverty, Medicare, highway and agriculture spending.
That strategy failed to acknowledge that Democrats can always woo those voters by promising even larger spending increases. Democrats still accuse the GOP of shortchanging education despite the 137 percent increase. Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts promised that "when we get [the Medicare drug entitlement] as a down payment, we're going to come back again and again and again." Even record anti-poverty spending levels haven't stopped the media from stereotypically portraying the GOP majority as mean-spirited budget cutters. Republican spenders can never outbid Democrats for the votes of big-government advocates, and any futile attempt to do so merely demoralizes small-government advocates. This may explain why even two-thirds of conservative voters disapprove of the free-spending GOP Congress.
Yet lawmakers continue to tout spending as political gold because most of their contacts are with lobbyists and a vocal minority of constituents demanding more money for their pet issues. Polls consistently show that a silent majority of Americans prefer a small government with lower taxes and fewer services over a larger one with higher taxes and more services. One recent poll revealed that, by a two-to-one ratio, Americans prefer spending restraint even if it means less pork and federal funds coming home. This silent majority is why the GOP's "minority caucus" lawmakers continue to win re-election even while opposing most new spending.
It's too early to tell which party will triumph in the 2006 elections. But whoever wins should rethink the assertion that two more years of busting the budget will bring victory in 2008.
Brian Riedl is Grover M. Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times