At least when Bill Clinton was president, we used to pretend that the era of big government was over. Such an illusion is impossible to maintain in the present political climate. It's the big spenders versus the bigger spenders.
First George W. Bush presided over the biggest binge in discretionary spending and the largest new federal entitlement since Lyndon Johnson. He proposed the first $2 trillion federal budget in the nation's history. Just five years later, Bush followed up by unveiling the first $3 trillion budget.
Now Barack Obama wants to spend at least another $800 billion on top of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout passed just months ago. And of course the president wants the stimulus package signed into law before his Treasury secretary deigns to tell the taxpayers how he plans to spend the remaining bailout money.
It gets worst: all that stands in the way of the Democrats rubberstamping Obama's new spending is the tiny Republican minority -- made up mostly of the same people who rubberstamped Bush's spending.
Republicans did what they could in the House, voting unanimously against the stimulus bill. But there isn't much a House minority can do. In the Senate, however, the Republicans (just barely) have the votes to delay or even stop legislation in its tracks. If the stimulus measure were to run into another unified wall of Republicans in the upper house, it would be in serious trouble.
Don't count on it. A group of moderates from both parties -- Republicans Susan Collins and Arlen Specter, Democrats Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman -- swooped in Gang of 14-style to salvage the spending package. The Nelson-Collins deal excises some $100 billion in spending from the House version. This includes $3.5 billion intended for energy-efficient federal buildings, $75 million that would have gone for the Smithsonian, and $100 million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The biggest single item is the elimination of $40 billion in state fiscal stabilization funds. Yet in typical Washington fashion the final price tag is no smaller than the House version. In fact, at $827 billion it presently costs about $7 billion more.
Even so, House Democrats want to restore as much of their original spending as possible. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described the Nelson-Collins cuts as "very damaging" and said she was "very much opposed to them." Even as the moderate senators are suggesting they may withhold support from whatever emerges from conference if their deal unravels, the Congressional Progressive Caucus is threatening to make trouble in the House if they don't get their spending on education or the states.
But cutting spending is not an option. An alternative Republican stimulus bill that would cost a little more than half as much exists, but has no chance of passing. The entire debate will focus on the composition of the stimulus and how close to $1 trillion (before interest) the cost to the taxpayers gets. Not whether government will get bigger, but exactly how big it is going to get.
The rush toward another expansion of government continues even though Washington doesn't have the money. The budget deficit for 2009 is already approaching $1.2 trillion, almost triple last year's and the largest dollar amount in history. The political class is unlikely to pause, even though the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the stimulus package will harm the economy more in the long term than doing nothing. And what is being undertaken now as a one-time emergency may well have enduring, even permanent consequences.
When the country's first $1 trillion deficit was projected, House Minority Leader John Boehner urged his fellow lawmakers to exercise caution. "The deficit estimate makes it clearer than ever that we cannot borrow and spend our way back to prosperity when we're already running an annual deficit of more than one trillion dollars," he told reporters.
That won't stop the federal government from trying.
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