Budget Battle Prequel



In 1995 the Republican Party had just won back control of the House of Representatives in a midterm election, with a young and hopeful Democratic president halfway through his first term. The new House promised to shrink the federal government and curb congressional spending. Sound familiar?

In the July 1995 reason, Carolyn Lochhead assessed the ambitions of a Republican Party promising fiscally responsible government. "Fresh from the victories of their first 100 days as Congress's new majority, Republicans stand on the brink of an epic clash over federal spending," Lochhead wrote. "Republicans are resolved to balance the budget by 2002, the supreme vow that undergirds their aim to shrink government."

They beat their goal, balancing the budget by 1998. But their success was not a product of smaller government. Instead, a growing economy threw off more tax revenue. Between 1995 and the balanced budget of 1998, revenue grew by $310 billion in 2000 dollars. But inflation-adjusted spending was $59 billion higher in 1998 than in 1995. And it hasn't stopped growing since.

It isn't just the broader budget battle that looks familiar. "Medicare will be the decisive battlefield in this year's budget war," Lochhead wrote. A decade and a half after the 1994 "Republican Revolution," Medicare remains unreformed. Indeed, in 2003 a Republican House and Republican president added a new, unfunded prescription drug benefit that is now expected to cost $621 billion in its first decade of operation.

Lochhead suggested a bellwether of GOP seriousness would be "LIHEAP, the low-income energy assistance program, a relic of Jimmy Carter's disastrous reaction to the 'energy crisis.'?" It was hard to make a practical case for LIHEAP, but the program "pays the utility bills of an extravagant number of New Hampshire residents," a group of great importance in presidential primaries. LIHEAP spent an inflation-adjusted $2.7 billion in 1995. The program still exists, and in fiscal year 2010 it cost $5.1 billion, 89 percent more. The U.S. population, meanwhile, grew by only 24 percent from 1990 to 2010.

Today's GOP plans for budget sanity are more modest. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), now in charge of the House Budget Committee, talks about eliminating the deficit not seven but 52 years from now. And even that goal seems to strike his fellow Republicans as political poison. "Rolling back government is much easier in the abstract than in its specifics, not only for politicians, but also for the public," Lochhead wrote in 1995. Sixteen years later, that's still true.