In July 1985, the Reagan administration tried to abolish the Small Business Administration. But Lowell Weicker (R-Conn.), who then chaired the Senate Small Business Committee, vowed to block any attempt to defund his fiefdom. The administration only cut that year's SBA appropriation in half, to $385 million. A decade later, the SBA gets more than $800 million a year from taxpayers.
Today's congressional budget cutters could learn a valuable lesson from the Reagan administration's 1985 defeat. Republican House leaders have promised that their budget will eliminate the federal deficit within seven years. But how they reduce spending will be more important than whether they wipe out the deficit.
Would-be budget cutters have two choices: Trim every program a little and leave the regulatory state intact. Or limit the scope of the federal government and eliminate everything outside those boundaries. Which way congressional Republicans choose to go will determine whether the GOP's actions match its anti-government rhetoric.
The White House, most Democrats, and some Republicans clearly favor the first approach, giving the federal government a slight haircut. "We're not cutting government blindly," Bill Clinton said of his budget. "We're clearing away yesterday's government to make room for the solutions to the problems we face today and tomorrow." Like "reinventing government," this strategy concentrates on making current federal programs "more efficient," rather than asking why they exist in the first place.
But the haircut approach ignores the Lowell Weickers on Capitol Hill. Unless Congress zeroes out a program's appropriations, its budget will inevitably grow. The haircut strategy also overlooks the fiscal time bombs known as entitlements, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and federal pensions. Spending on these "automatic" programs, plus interest on the federal debt, will consume the entire budget by 2010.
Some of the leaders in the allegedly radical House are, in fact, Weicker Republicans who would rather preserve their bases of power than reduce the size of government. Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (Kan.) has promised to block cuts in farm subsidies. Rep. John Edward Porter (Ill.), who oversees public-broadcasting appropriations, is protecting the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And Rep. Jan Meyers (Kan.), who heads the small business subcommittee, vows to keep the SBA alive.
But this time, the Weicker Republicans may face determined congressional opposition. The $100-billion spending-cut package Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich issued in March would, among other things, defund the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and the Legal Services Corporation, privatize public broadcasting, and abolish the Interstate Commerce Commission. Kasich's plan would also begin to eliminate the Departments of Commerce and Energy, dissolve the Interior Department's National Biological Service, and phase out Amtrak subsidies.
The pressure is on, brought in part by a feisty class of 73 GOP House freshmen. In March, the freshman class proposed eliminating the Departments of Energy, Commerce, Education, and housing. Meanwhile, freshman Rep. Mark Neumann (R-Wis.) has offered a plan that, by eliminating more than 100 agencies and programs, would balance the federal budget in four years. So there's hope.
Even Sen. Bob Dole, the quintessential compromiser, talks like a radical. As he launched his presidential candidacy in Kansas, Dole vowed to eliminate the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, asking, "Why is the federal government in the culture business?" If Republicans answer such questions by abolishing federal agencies, we'll know a revolution is indeed under way.