There was a time when GOP lawmakers called for the elimination of entire federal agencies. Today, milquetoast promises to pursue smaller government are followed by votes for ever bigger government.
As Milton Friedman noted, the true size of the state is measured by how much money it spends. Budget data show that all modern presidents, regardless of party affiliation, have increased the federal fiscal footprint—but Republican administrations have generally increased the amount spent at a faster rate than Democratic ones.
Under George W. Bush, who was elected on a platform of fiscal restraint, total federal spending increased in real terms by 53 percent. Enabled and encouraged by a Republican-led Congress, his administration adopted the politically self-serving notion that "deficits don't matter." No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and bank bailouts serve as a vivid reminder that shrinking the state doesn't stand a chance.
Even the record of Ronald Reagan, that eloquent spokesman for limited government, was disappointing. Whatever progress he made in limiting the growth of domestic programs was offset by enormous hikes in the Pentagon's budget that helped set the stage for the last 30 years of costly American military adventurism. Overall annual spending jumped 22 percent in real terms during Reagan's first term. By comparison, it grew by just 12.5 percent under Bill Clinton and 0.3 percent under Barack Obama (when giving his predecessor full credit for fiscal year 2009, as we do for all departing presidents in this exercise).
The voting record of congressional Republicans while Obama was in office is additional evidence that politics—not principles—guide the GOP. In 2011, Republicans used the fight over increasing the debt ceiling to curtail Obama's spending desires, but ever since they have joined Democrats in breaching spending caps. They attacked the rise in food stamp usage but helped keep what are essentially welfare checks flowing to wealthy farmers and landowners. They complained about the green subsidies that the Obama administration gave to now-defunct Solyndra but refused to terminate the underlying program (which, by the way, began during the Bush years). And they decried cronyism in government, unless it served friendly special interests like defense contractors and sugar moguls.
Yes, Republicans deserve credit for getting in the way of the Democrats' wildest spending schemes. But whatever motivation they had to limit expenditure growth while a Democrat sat in the Oval Office vanished once a Republican took over.
We obviously don't have a full picture yet of spending during Donald Trump's tenure. But with Washington unified under GOP rule since January 2017, congressional Republicans have been blowing money at levels congressional Democrats could only dream of. They quickly lifted the spending caps associated with sequestration—the only even modestly effective expenditure limit still in place—to grow the already bloated Pentagon budget even more. Indeed, the purported party of limited government shamelessly increased discretionary spending by $300 billion over two years.
Led by a president who doesn't appear to understand basic economics and who insists that the long-term drivers of America's unsustainable national debt—Social Security and Medicare—can't be touched, the mainstream GOP has proven that the grumbling about big government under Obama was mere political posturing. After years of swearing to repeal the Affordable Care Act, unified Republican power has instead come with a noticeable new taste for Medicaid expansion and support for other provisions of the law.
Republican apologists always seem to have an excuse for federal expansions on their watch. They argued, for instance, that Bush's prescription drug subsidy for seniors was noble as well as politically savvy. But it's getting government out of the equation that would actually make health care more affordable. Instead, Republicans delivered the biggest enlargement of the welfare state since the creation of Medicare in 1965.
The conservative defense of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is another example. That credit is a wealth redistribution program that Republicans and conservatives praise as encouraging people to work—if you ignore the disincentive to increase one's hourly labor created by the means cap. When pressed on the issues with the program, including the 25 percent of annual payments that are improper, conservatives are fast to note that it's better than the high minimum wage sought by liberals. But two wrongs don't make a right, and a hike in the federal minimum wage won't happen if Republicans don't capitulate.
The latest instance of conservatives opening the door to more government involvement in our lives under the excuse that the left wants something even worse is a push to allow parents to prematurely tap their Social Security benefits to use for family leave. The idea, which was conjured up by the conservative Independent Women's Forum, is being sold to Republicans as deficit-friendly, because whatever money is doled out now could be offset decades down the road by deferring retirement by a few weeks.
Even if it's true that the proposal would be less harmful than alternatives championed by Democrats, we need to be realistic: Once the door is opened to providing Social Security benefits upfront for a particular reason, policy makers and special interests will start finding other reasons for doing so as well—many others. As with the child tax credit pushed by conservatives in the 1990s, the price tag will eventually grow, and the federal debt along with it. Nonetheless, the proposal has been praised by Sens. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) and Mike Lee (R–Utah), who can always be counted on to dump overboard their limited government beliefs in exchange for "pro-family" policies.
Republicans did cut taxes under Bush and again under Trump. Not all tax reform is created equal, however. Last year's package cut the top corporate rate from 35 to 21 percent, which on its own will assist economic growth. But the deal also contained expensive personal income tax cuts for people who were already paying relatively little. Rubio and Lee can be thanked for the inclusion of economically counterproductive measures such as an expansion of the child tax credit. Worse, the legislation had zero regard for the need to reduce government expenditures to make up for revenue losses. Shortsighted lawmakers once again ignored the mathematical reality: A failure to match tax cuts with spending cuts increases the chances that we'll eventually need to introduce a Value Added Tax to deal with our staggering public debt.
Believing that Republicans will make good on pledges to reduce the size and scope of government makes us Charlie Brown to politicians' football-holding Lucy. But at least Republicans oppose barriers to trade, right?
Wait, what was that?
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Stop Calling the GOP the Party of Small Government".