Power Struggle Ignores True Debate

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by Adam B. Summers by Adam B. Summers

Election Day is fast approaching and the candidates are making their last-minute appeals to the voters. The presidential race is still too close to call and the Senate is up for grabs. As such, we have been witness to more than our fair share of empty rhetoric. Thus, when not distracted by conflicts in the Middle East, the politicians have been busy doling out promises and tax dollars to their varied interest groups, and political pundits are lining up to offer their analyses and witticisms regarding the coming struggle for power in Washington.

But while reporters and pundits offer minute-to-minute updates on who has the upper hand in winning control of the presidency and the Senate, they are asking the wrong questions. The real question is not whether George W. Bush or John Kerry will win the race, but what difference does it make if Republicans or Democrats control the White House or Congress? My guess is little to none.

Many Republicans doubtless believed in 2000 that George W.'s victory over Al Gore would usher in an era of fiscal responsibility and smaller government. Many Democrats believed his election would spell the death of their coveted social programs. The fact of the matter, however, is that the federal government has continued to grow and grow. The choice between a big-government Republican and a big-government Democrat ensures that it will continue to do so regardless of whether Bush or Kerry wins on November 2nd (or sometime thereafter, should we have another fiasco like Florida in 2000).

President Bush was quite right to note during the presidential debates that Senator Kerry's claims of fiscal responsibility are "not credible." Unfortunately, neither are his own.

Let's take a look at the self-proclaimed "accomplishments" of President Bush and the Republicans over the past four years.

During his 2002 State of the Union Address, the president pronounced: "To achieve these great national objectives — to win the war [on terrorism], protect the homeland, and revitalize our economy — our budget will run a deficit that will be small and short term so long as Congress restrains spending and acts in a fiscally responsible way." When was the last time Congress restrained spending, by the way?

The deficit for the just concluded fiscal year stands at a record $413 billion. Both Bush and Kerry have promised to halve the deficit, but what would their spending plans really do to it? A recent study by the Concord Coalition estimates that both Bush's and Kerry's plans would add approximately $1.3 trillion to the national debt over the next ten years, compared to current Congressional Budget Office economic projections. The report further notes that neither plan includes spending for the "war on terrorism" in Iraq and Afghanistan, addresses the growing alternative minimum tax problem, or assumes the extension of several small tax breaks, known as "extenders," that are routinely renewed but scheduled to expire during the term of their plans.

In addition, the national debt has once again reached its ceiling. According to Treasury Secretary John Snow, the national debt limit, which currently stands at nearly $7.4 trillion, will have to be raised by mid-November in order to avoid defaulting on government loans. As noted in a recent New York Times article, under President Bush's "fiscally responsible" stewardship (and unwillingness to veto a single piece of pork-laden legislation during his term), the debt limit has already been increased three times over the past three years by a total of $2.1 trillion (approximately 40 percent). Not surprisingly, the issue has not received any attention from the Republican-led Congress ahead of the elections. Republican legislators were careful to shelve the issue to avoid some embarrassing publicity for themselves and President Bush in the waning days of their campaigns.

President Bush often touts his minor tax cut as evidence of his fiscal conservative credentials. What Mr. Bush does not seem to understand is that tax cuts do little good if the government continues to spend more than it takes in. Deficits not "paid for" with tax increases today must be paid for by tax increases in the future (since neither candidate is willing to so much as discuss reducing spending).

Then there is the vaunted Medicare prescription drug plan. As Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has asserted, the Medicare prescription drug plan "enriches pharmaceutical companies, fleeces taxpayers, and forces millions of older Americans to accept inferior drug coverage — while doing nothing to address the real reasons prescription drugs cost so much." Paul further cautioned that the program's $400 million price tag for the next decade is likely grossly underestimated, pointing out that existing Medicare programs now cost several times their initial cost estimates. For those who still believe that the Republican Party is the party of small government and fiscal responsibility, it must seem odd that a Republican president is responsible for the largest expansion of the federal welfare system (and government spending in general) since the "Great Society" days of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The president and Congress pursued protectionist measures such as tariffs and import quotas in the steel and lumber industries (not to mention pharmaceuticals; shrimp; South Korean computer chips; Vietnamese catfish; Chinese textiles, furniture, bras, and television sets; and flowers from South America), as special interests in politically-sensitive states won out over the espoused Republican support of free trade. In addition, President Bush signed the $190 billion farm subsidies bill, increasing program funding by 80 percent and signifying his faith in failed Depression-era economic policies. (How proud FDR would be!) Some free trade proponent.

This is not to imply that John Kerry would be any better on the trade issue, mind you. Kerry would merely add to these protectionist "labor (union)-friendly" policies a crack down on "outsourcing" and entrepreneurial "Benedict Arnolds," who dare to minimize labor costs so that they may (gasp!) become more profitable (read: create more jobs and offer lower prices to consumers.)

Another major "victory" was scored in the form of the campaign finance reform bill, which might just as well have been known as the Abridgement of Free Speech and Incumbent Protection Act of 2002.

The "No Child Left Behind Act" (for what would government spending increases be if not justified in the name of saving, protecting, or otherwise benefiting "the children?") is an example of another bipartisan boondoggle that shifted local control over education to the federal government. The act was the largest-ever increase in federal education spending and regulation. Its $26.5 billion initial appropriation for elementary and secondary education represented an increase of over 43% from the previous year's allocation. (So much for fiscal conservatism and local control.) Bush praised the level of bipartisanship present in passing the bill and praised that long-time political ally of his, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA). This from the leader of the party that not so long ago called for an end to the Department of Education (as well as the Department of Commerce, the National Endowment for the Arts, and numerous other unnecessary and wasteful bureaucracies). Does it not say something when George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy congratulate each other on a job well done?

Political analysts are right to note the frustration of Democrats in losing the public relations war over issues such as homeland security and the "War on Terrorism," but they miss the larger point: the players may change, but the policies remain the same. The differences between the Republicans and the Democrats are marginal at best, as can be seen by a perusal of American political history over the past 40 or 50 years. Current debate centers on questions over how much should be spent on this program or that program, not whether programs should exist at all or how potential or existing functions of government may violate the Constitution. The size, scope, and power of the federal government continue to increase markedly. Whether the government grows at 8% a year or 10% a year is of little consequence.

From Medicare to Social Security to the "War on Terrorism" to education to trade regulation to the War on Drugs to homeland security, President Bush and Republicans in general have joined Democrats in supporting expanded government power and control. The sad truth is that the two major political parties do not resemble organizations of people with different ideologies and visions of America as much as they do street gangs. The "my gang is better than yours" mentality predominates and gang wars ensue over turf – both literally, in terms of geographic (district) boundaries, and figuratively, in terms of control over who may court and receive the spoils of victory from special interests. Thus, the theory held by many that spending would be lower under a "divided" government (even with a liberal Democrat like John Kerry in the Oval Office) than with Republican control of both Congress and the White House (as we have regrettably experienced these past four years).

John Kerry's record as a big-government, tax-and-spend Democrat should not be a point of contention. Neither should George W. Bush's record as a big-government, borrow-and-spend (i.e., tax later-and-spend) Republican. Indeed, GWB has shown as much fiscal restraint as LBJ and FDR!

The true debate in this country consists of those who value individual liberty and those who believe in a socialist welfare state, between the libertarians and the statist Republocrats. Until this distinction is made more clear in the eyes of the general public (and the voters stop rewarding Republican and Democrat politicians alike for their profligacy and lack of respect for the Constitution), expect continued government expansion and encroachment, regardless of who wins on November 2nd.

Adam B. Summers [send him mail] is an economic and public policy consultant and a visiting policy analyst at the Reason Foundation. He holds a Master’s degree in economics from George Mason University.

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