Serious About Limiting Government?

The GOP takes on big government, again.


After the 1994 mid-term elections, Republicans took over the House of Representatives for the first time in four decades. In the wake of President Bill Clinton's failed attempt to overhaul the nation's health care system, they vowed to cut government down to size. 

Were they serious? That was the question Rick Henderson asked in "Sobriety Test" (January 1995). Henderson outlined five areas where Republicans could prove their commitment to smaller government: tax fairness, budget reform, entitlement reform, spending cuts, and regulatory restraint. 

A few years later, Republican members of Congress worked with Clinton to reform the welfare system. Government spending dropped as a percentage of the economy for the rest of Clinton's presidency, and annual federal deficits briefly shrank to the point of nonexistence. No tax overhaul materialized, although in 2003 Clinton's Republican successor, George W. Bush, reduced marginal income tax rates for everyone. 

But any foray into small-government seriousness was temporary at best. Under Bush, Republicans in Congress expanded Medicare, the nation's biggest entitlement program; let federal spending and deficits soar; and failed to pass Social Security reform.

These days the budget situation is messier than ever, so it's no surprise to hear Republicans once again talking about the need to cut spending and reform entitlements. Are they serious this time? 

Some signs suggest they might be. After a year of campaigning against the sequester—a set of across-the-board spending reductions included in the 2011 debt deal—most House Republicans indicated in early 2013 that they would rather let it happen. "We think these sequesters will happen," House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said on Meet the Press in January, "because the Democrats have opposed our efforts to replace those cuts with others, and they've offered no alternatives."

Other signs suggest any commitment to spending cuts may be illusory. "I don't like the sequester," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters as he asked President Obama for ideas on how to replace it with different cuts. Meanwhile, Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) offered a replacement idea of his own: higher taxes.