W Is for What?

Bush may be compassionate, but he's no conservative.


Columnist Ted Rall calls George W. Bush "a right-wing extremist whose agenda makes Barry Goldwater look tame by comparison." If only it were so.

Looking at the president's record during the last three years, one is hard-pressed to see any affinity between his agenda and that of conservatives who respect the Constitution and believe in limited government. In particular, Bush repeatedly has forsaken the conservative principles of fiscal restraint, free trade, and federalism.

According to the latest figures from congressional budget committees, federal discretionary spending rose by 12.5 percent in the fiscal year that ended on September 30, compared to a 1990s average of 2.4 percent. The increase during the last two fiscal years combined was about 27 percent.

Although much of the increase came in defense, it's not safe to assume that every expenditure in that category is justified. When we face real threats to our security and budget deficits approaching half a trillion dollars, for example, it's especially absurd that the U.S. still maintains troops in countries, such as South Korea, Japan, and Germany, that are perfectly capable of defending themselves.

In any case, nonmilitary discretionary spending also has risen sharply under Bush, by about 9 percent in the last fiscal year and more than 20 percent since he took office. By comparison, nonmilitary discretionary spending dropped slightly during Bill Clinton's first three years in office.

Congress passes the spending bills, of course, but Bush has not seen fit to veto a single one. And as the Cato Institute's Veronique de Rugy and Tad DeHaven point out, each of Bush's budget proposals has called for spending increases, including $43 billion for education in fiscal year 2002 and his current $400 billion request for the largest Medicare expansion in history.

"Bush has been a big spender across the board," de Rugy and DeHaven conclude. Stan Collender, a federal budget analyst at the public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard, agrees, telling The Washington Post: "This is an administration that cannot possibly take up the mantle of fiscal conservatism. It's probably the least fiscally conservative in history."

Not only is Bush more of a big spender than his predecessor; he's less of a free trader. The other day, to no one's surprise, the World Trade Organization ruled that Bush's steel tariffs violate the trade rules by which the U.S. has promised to abide. Based on the WTO decision, the European Union is threatening retaliatory tariffs on products ranging from citrus fruit to motorcycles, all because Bush wanted to shore up his electoral support in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

It's gratifying to see the president's cynical maneuver backfire so spectacularly, with the anxieties of all the industries that would be hurt by E.U. sanctions added to the complaints from domestic manufacturers who were hurt by the tariffs because they use steel. Unfortunately, there has been no similar political fallout from the president's support of the 2002 bill that substantially expanded farm subsidies, a major obstacle to freer trade.

Given that Bush is happy to endorse spending for which Congress has no constitutional authority (on education, prescription drugs, and farm subsidies, for example), perhaps it's not surprising that he has so little respect for the separation of powers between the federal and state governments. Still, it's disheartening to see a self-proclaimed constitutionalist abandon federalism whenever it conflicts with his personal impulses.

The most recent example is the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which President Bush proudly signed earlier this month. Whatever you think of the procedure banned by the law or of abortion generally, it's laughable to assert that the Interstate Commerce Clause authorizes Congress to legislate in this area. Yet that is the official justification for the law, which ostensibly covers "any physician who, in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, knowingly performs a partial-birth abortion."

As Independence Institute scholar David Kopel and University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds noted in a 1997 Connecticut Law Review article, this language is baffling "to any person not familiar with the Commerce Clause sophistries of twentieth century jurisprudence… Unless a physician is operating a mobile abortion clinic on the Metroliner, it is not really possible to perform an abortion 'in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce.'"

The slippery reasoning that makes abortion a fit subject for federal regulation obliterates the crucial constitutional distinction between local and national matters. It's the sort of thing a conservative ought to care about.