Regardless of how the latest federal budget dispute turns out or what the details of the final package are, the Republicans have lost the battle. They lost because they threw down their weapons.
During the latest debate every Republican of any stature conceded the Democrats' basic premise: Big government is good. From President George Bush to Rep. Newt Gingrich (Ga.), the Republicans just react to Democratic proposals—scaling them back, quibbling about details, but accepting the notion that government should act to solve a host of perceived social problems.
The battle between Bush and Gingrich wasn't one of ideology, but one of political expediency: Should the Republicans give the Democrats a lot or just a little?
President Bush must shoulder much of the blame for the GOP's malaise. As Heritage Foundation analyst Daniel J. Mitchell noted in our November issue, "On almost every issue, from the minimum wage to child care, from disability legislation to taxes, from the environment to racial quotas, the White House has conceded the fundamental argument over whether the government solves problems or causes them."
For the last two years, the pattern has been the same. Democrats propose a massive new spending or regulatory program. Then Bush sits down with congressional leaders, wins a few minor exemptions, and signs the "compromise" into law.
But this time Bush went too far. In his zeal to win a budget compromise, he reneged on his one campaign promise: He agreed to raise taxes.
House Minority Whip Gingrich stormed out of the budget summit and led a successful fight in the House against the summit agreement. But their speeches and TV interviews make it clear that Gingrich and his allies had no principled objection to big government. They just realized that it was politically foolish to vote for tax hikes and Medicare cuts.
The federal budget is over $1.2 trillion. If Gramm-Rudman-Hollings had been allowed to work, spending would have dropped $85.4 billion, or 7 percent. There is probably no business or household in the United States that could not cut its spending by 7 percent. And there is surely more fat in the federal government than in the typical household or business budget. But no one—not Gingrich, not even Gramm-Rudman co-author Sen. Phil Gramm (R–Tex.)—questioned Bush's assertion that Gramm-Rudman cuts would be disastrous.
As a group, Republicans don't want to eliminate any federal program. A proposal by Rep. Phil Crane (R–Ill.) to shut down the National Endowment for the Arts, for example, got almost no support. Republicans would rather redirect the NEA to fund "profamily," or at least non-obscene, artwork.
Gingrich himself has long advocated using an activist government for "conservative" ends. His own alternative to the budget-summit agreement involved raising taxes somewhat less and switching some Medicare cuts to other programs. Gingrich likes big government as much as the next Washington insider; he just doesn't want to pay for it.
With the Republicans conceding the basic issue, the Democrats can dictate domestic policy. If they can out-compromise Bush, the Democrats can also outmaneuver Gingrich. If the Republicans offer a new federal program, the Democrats can insist on a better, i.e., more expensive, one. And when the Democrats demand new spending, Gingrich can offer no principled objection. As the budget brouhaha has demonstrated, any future conflicts between or within the two parties will be about electoral politics or personal animosity, not ideas.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Budget Baloney".