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Reason Foundation

Did Freedom Win?

Shrinking the government means slashing government spending

John Stossel
November 4, 2010

What a surprise! Everyone predicted a Republican resurgence. Instead, voters shocked pundits by strengthening the Democratic majority in Congress. President Obama called the result “a resounding confirmation of my legislative achievements.” Democrats quickly introduced legislation to add a public option to Obamacare; a second, larger “stimulus” bill; a Paycheck Fairness Act; and new card-check and cap-and-trade bills.

OK, I assume that didn’t happen. I write this on Election Day. Polls haven’t closed. It might have happened.

Please tell me it didn’t.

This was to be the year of the Tea Party triumph. As a libertarian, I so want to believe that the Tea Party marks the beginning a comeback for small government.

But I’m probably deluding myself. I know that big government usually wins. Remember the last time the Republicans took power? They promised fiscal responsibility, and for six of George W. Bush’s eight years, his party controlled Congress. What did we have to show for it?

Federal spending increased by 54 percent. That’s more than any president in the last 50 years. Much more than the 12 percent increase under Bill Clinton, and it even beat the 36 percent increase under big spender Lyndon Johnson. The number of subsidy programs grew 30 percent, and the regulatory budget grew 70 percent. The private sector shrank, while the government sector grew by 1.6 million jobs.  

Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress created a prescription drug entitlement, the biggest entitlement expansion since Medicare. At one point, he nearly tripled the Department of Education budget.

Republicans want another chance, but any sensible person would be skeptical. We saw what happened when Republicans got a taste of power, and it wasn’t pretty. Why should we believe it wouldn’t happen again? Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), likely the next chair of the House Education Committee, has already said that he’s not going to abolish the Department of Education.

Republicans anticipated skepticism and tried to address it with the Pledge for America, an echo of the 1994 Contract With America. But the Pledge is modest. It promises no cuts in Medicare, Social Security, or the military. That’s where most of the money is. Those programs account for 60 percent of the budget.

Their reluctance to call for entitlement cuts is politically understandable: Older people vote and don’t like the prospect of Medicare cuts. But taking Medicare off the budget-cutting agenda forsakes one’s credibility as a fiscal hawk. Medicare faces $36 trillion in unfunded promises. Social Security adds $4.3 trillion. As Shikha Dalmia writes in Forbes, “By 2052, Uncle Sam’s three entitlement programs—Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—will consume all federal tax revenues, leaving nothing for government’s core, constitutional functions.”

OK, congressmen and would-be congressmen are just politicians. But the Tea Party is supposed to be different. It stands for fiscal responsibility, spending cuts, and deficit reduction. A New York Times poll found that 92 percent of tea partiers said they would rather have a “smaller government providing fewer services" than a "bigger government providing more services.”

That’s encouraging. But when it comes to specifics, the results aren’t as good. The poll found that 62 percent thought “the benefits from government programs such as Social Security and Medicare are worth the costs.” A Bloomberg poll found that most Tea Partiers “want more drug benefits for Medicare patients.” And when was the last time you heard tea partiers complaining about the exploding military budget?

Strangely, in other questions, Tea Partiers did seem willing to accept cuts in domestic entitlement programs if it meant smaller government. The contradictory answers don’t bode well for the time when lobbyists for well-organized special interests mount their passionate attacks against cuts.

You just cannot be committed to cutting government if you would leave two of the costliest programs intact.

It’s exciting to know that by the time you read this, the Republicans will have probably retaken the House. Divided government historically spends less than governments under one-party control. But if the people who most loudly demand smaller government can’t deliver a clear message on the biggest sources of government spending, the fiscal future of the country is in trouble.

John Stossel is host of Stossel on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of Give Me a Break and of Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity. To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at johnstossel.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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