Will Republicans Get Serious on Spending?

Don't count on it.


Barely a week has passed since the thumping Republican victory in congressional elections, and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is enjoying the chance to reveal how the GOP will use its new power.

Speaking to a crowd at the annual convention of the Federalist Society, an influential organization of conservative and libertarian lawyers, McConnell is among friends. They are happy to hear him declare, "Americans want less government, less spending and less debt."

Then the senator tells them what his party is going to do to bring the runaway federal budget under control. "We will vote to freeze and cut discretionary spending," he vows.

What is important is not so much what is said but what is omitted. The four biggest items in the federal budget are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and defense. And those programs escape any mention from McConnell.

They make up about 60 percent of the federal budget. Domestic discretionary outlays, by contrast, account for only about 16 percent. If Republicans focus entirely on those, they will be sending a clear and quite believable message: We're not serious.

It is tempting to think the Tea Partiers will force the party to finally live up to their promises of frugality. But the evidence suggests they are engaged in a task akin to plowing the sea.

Republicans have had multiple opportunities to put their words into deeds, and each time they've declined. The first was with President Ronald Reagan, under whom the federal budget grew by 22 percent, adjusted for inflation. Though he often preached the virtue of a balanced budget, he never actually proposed one.

The GOP got another chance in 1994, when it gained control of Congress. After vowing to get rid of the departments of education and energy, Republicans left them alone. They failed to abolish a single important program.

They did force President Bill Clinton to cooperate in balancing the budget. But even though the end of the Cold War allowed cuts in defense appropriations, total federal spending grew faster than inflation.

Then there was President George W. Bush, who in his new memoir, Decision Points, claims to have been a staunch budget disciplinarian—which is like Kim Kardashian claiming to be publicity-shy.

"My administration's ratios of spend-to-GDP, taxes-to-GDP, deficit-to-GDP, and debt to GDP are all lower than the averages of the past three decades—and, in most cases, below the averages of my recent predecessors," he asserts.

This brings to mind the old jibe about his father: He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. When Bush the Younger arrived, federal spending was at the lowest level, as a share of GDP, since 1966, and the budget had a surplus.

From 2001 through 2008, though, spending grew 13 percent as a share of GDP, and a $128 billion surplus turned into a $459 billion deficit. That doesn't even count the huge jump in total outlays and the deficit in fiscal year 2009—most of which was the product of his decisions, not Obama's.

Bush is like a billionaire who goes broke over 10 years and then says, "Based on my average wealth over the past decade, I'm rich."

Now, Republicans admit they fell short in the past and insist that they have learned their lesson. But why should you believe them? McConnell's vow to cut discretionary spending indicates that they are captives of magical thinking, not practical reality.

They claim they can save $100 billion a year on those programs. But after 2012, reports the Washington-based Concord Coalition, the total cost of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will swell by more than $100 billion annually.

Not only that, but interest costs on the government debt will also grow by $100 billion a year. So even if the GOP makes those discretionary spending cuts, overall expenditures will be higher than the unacceptable levels of 2010.

Nor is there much reason to think Republicans will take on federal support for retirees. In fact, many Republicans campaigned by roasting Democrats for allegedly cutting Medicare—though the Democrats had voted only to cut its growth rate.

It's not a good omen. The Tea Partiers are waiting for congressional Republicans to do everything they can to reduce the size and cost of government. But they may find it's like waiting for Santa Claus.