WANT TO CURB federal spending? Replace President Bush with a Democrat. This is not entirely a joke. With Republicans in control of the White House and Congress since 2000--except for an interlude in 2001-2002 when Democrats held the Senate--spending has risen at roughly three times the rate of the 1990s when Democrat Bill Clinton was president. Back then, congressional Republicans stymied Democratic spending. Now, Republicans go along with Bush's spending initiatives, while he accedes to theirs. That's the way a governing majority operates.
Conservatives who favor smaller government are upset with Bush. Steve Moore of the Club for Growth says the administration hasn't come to grips with its spending problem. Republican senator John Sununu of New Hampshire believes the surge in federal spending clashes with the concept of limited government embraced by nearly all Republicans. Under Clinton, discretionary spending rose an average of 2.7 percent a year, but in the Bush years it has soared about 8 percent. Total federal spending, which includes entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, increased 1.7 percent in the Clinton years and just under 6 percent in the three years Bush has shaped the budget. To many conservatives, this trend is inexcusable.
Only, President Bush has an excuse--better yet, a reason--in 9/11 and the war on terrorism. Grant him this and the picture changes dramatically. Minus the additional expenditures for defense and homeland security, spending doesn't look so extravagant. In 2003, discretionary domestic spending rose 5 percent, while defense was up 11 percent and homeland security 85 percent. For 2004, the Office of Management and Budget projects a hike of less than 3 percent in domestic spending and rises of 4 percent in defense and 24 percent in homeland security. The defense number doesn't include "supplemental" spending of an estimated $50 billion in 2004 from the recent $87 billion appropriation for Iraq.
Bush hasn't abandoned spending restraint altogether. His tax cuts eventually may, as former senator Phil Gramm used to put it, "starve the spending." Budget director Josh Bolten says the White House has persuaded Congress to cap 2004 discretionary spending at $786 billion, not counting supplemental appropriations. But at the same time, Bush has promoted a prescription drug entitlement for the elderly priced at $400 billion over 10 years and an energy bill that triples the cost of the measure the president initially proposed. Nonetheless, Bush intervened last week to produce a compromise energy bill--but not a less costly one. And his effort failed, as six Republicans joined Democrats to block the bill in the Senate.
"Nobody was riding herd on the spending issues" in the energy legislation, according to Sununu. As a result, the bill turned into a porkfest that would cost $31 billion in subsidies and tax breaks, making it an instant symbol of government excess and corporate welfare. It would also micromanage parts of the energy industry through federal grants, while earmarking $1 billion for "coastal" programs in Louisiana. The measure would also spend $250 million apiece for such dubious projects as exploration of the "next generation" of lighting and photo-voltaic research. Neither Republican congressional leaders nor the White House did anything to rein in the bill's spending.
Bush had an opportunity last year to draw a limit on spending. The farm bill that reached his desk, drafted by then-Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, increased agricultural subsidies by $73.5 billion. But congressional Republican leaders backed it, and Bush never considered a veto (he has yet to veto a spending bill). Bush's economic adviser at the time, Larry Lindsey, went so far as to write a piece for the Wall Street Journal lauding the measure for meeting "the needs of farmers." Had Bush vetoed the bill, says Sununu, it "would have sent a very important message to everyone" on holding down spending.
Not that Bush doesn't routinely advocate fiscal conservatism. Last May, he insisted the best way to reduce the budget deficit is by controlling spending, not raising taxes. "It's to send clear priorities and say to the Congress, here are the guidelines, here's what we expect you to honor and that is, in this case, no more than 4 percent increase in discretionary spending," he said. "In other words, there needs to be fiscal sanity in Washington."
To meet the 4-percent goal, the president might have pushed for cuts in domestic social programs to help offset spending hikes in defense and homeland security. He didn't. The White House spins the spending on antiterrorist efforts and the war in Iraq as "one-time spending," a mere blip and not a recurring threat to the 4-percent goal.
Bush faces two more factors that conflict with spending restraint--and both are partly of his own making. One is his strategy for reelection in 2004: lock up the conservative base and go after the political center. His tax cuts, conservative values, and strong position on national security appeal to his base. But spending programs--a prescription drug benefit, energy subsidies, a lavish farm bill--are the easiest way to woo swing voters and win swing states.
The other factor is the governing majority Bush sits atop. Governing majorities can't stand still. Nor can they merely slash spending and reduce the size of government. To remain in power, they have to act, legislate, cope with inevitable national problems. That's what the public expects. Sure, if Democrats manage to send Bush an expensive energy bill, he'll have no qualms vetoing it. But veto a Republican bill that boosts Republican-leaning constituencies linked with his governing majority and affecting voter sentiment in key states? No way. Republican spending gets a pass, a cheer even.
The White House is feeling the pain of small government conservatives. One indication is the stress Bush aides put on the lowest spending figure, the one that leaves out defense, homeland security, and supplemental expenditures. Another is the White House's eagerness for a budget fight with Congress next year, with Bush leading the spend-less side. And the president intends to tout Social Security reform in his reelection campaign, arguing among other things that it's the only way to stem out-of-control spending on benefits. Will this strategy appease conservatives and thwart Democratic attempts to characterize him as fiscally reckless? Probably.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.