“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” Not only is this famous Everett Dirksen quote probably apocryphal. Dirksen’s own Republican Party has made it irrelevant. In the era of compassionate conservatism, a billion here and there is just a rounding error.
Last week, President Bush proposed the first $3 trillion federal budget. This is just five years after he introduced the first $2 trillion budget. To put such dizzying numbers in perspective, consider that it took nearly two hundred years for the federal budget to pass the $1 trillion mark. Alas, that was under Ronald Reagan in 1987. Even Homer nods.
So what do the headlines say? Stop this outrageous expenditure? Clean up the Exxon Valdez sized spill of red ink? Call off the Grand Old Spending Party?
Not a chance. The Associated Press blares, “Bush’s budget would cut over $2.9B from NJ hospitals.” Colorado hospitals would be hurt too, says the Denver Business Journal. The New Brunswick Home News Tribune editorializes, “No time for feds to cut transportation aid.”
A press release highlighted on Fox Business frets, “Bush Budget Cuts Federal Health Programs Vital to the Health of All Children.” The St. Petersburg Times opines, “Bush shows his contempt for entitlements and other domestic programs such as environmental protection and veterans care with his spending cuts.” The enlightened Iranian media even expresses concern that the budget contains “a series of disturbing proposals that will grossly cut already insufficient funding for the arts.”
SO EVEN when a Republican president offers a blueprint for record federal spending, he is attacked as a budget-slashing miser. The GOP gets little credit for big-government conservatism, because the Democrats can so easily outbid them. And the token spending cuts Republicans offer to keep taxes from going up, many of them justifiable, are the parts of the plan that make headlines — almost all of them negative.
Both Bush’s critics and his defenders are likely to raise an objection here. While $3 trillion may be the largest federal budget in nominal terms, outlays as a percentage of GDP remain virtually unchanged from 2003. The 2009 Bush budget won’t substantially change that, economic growth and inflation aside.
Still, to channel Dirksen, $3 trillion is real money. It’s roughly the equivalent of Germany’s GDP. Republicans continuously take the PR hit for nickeling and diming tiny programs or making relatively small cuts to big programs without doing anything meaningful to reduce the size and scope of the federal government. Why suffer the slings and arrows that come with being the green eyeshade party without reaping the rewards?
This nibbling around the edges of leviathan is supposed to shield Republicans from the political costs of doing risky things like reforming entitlements or cutting corporate welfare. Far better, our Republican friends say, to work for something that can actually pass. And it is still enough, the Bush budgeteers claim, to protect national defense and preserve the Bush tax cuts.
None of these hopeful thoughts have been borne out. Politically, Republicans will be blamed the next time a hospital closes or a forest fire rages out of control. In terms of getting something done, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus declared the Bush budget “dead on arrival.” Worse, the tax cuts are still expiring and the plan doesn’t fully account for spending in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There is going to come a time when conservatives will have to get serious about cutting spending items even if they are statistically significant, popular with the middle class, or found in the defense budget (no, every dime of that spending is not a wartime necessity). That means, as David Stockman said in his Reaganite days, attacking weak claims and not just weak claimants.
The alternative is to get bad publicity every time a public library’s hours are reduced in Poughkeepsie or Suzie’s flute lessons aren’t sufficiently subsidized in Peoria while government still grows and grows. It’s the kind of bad politics and fuzzy math that gives new meaning to the Stupid Party sobriquet. And probably has Everett Dirksen rolling in his grave.