Sunday, February 13, 2005

CUT SHORT: The Revolution That Wasn't

The New York Times
February 13, 2005
The Revolution That Wasn't

WASHINGTON — If the history of the Republican revolution were being written today, a single overarching question would have to be answered: Whatever happened to the promise of smaller government?

That question was asked again last week, when President Bush unveiled a $2.57 trillion budget for 2006, the largest in the nation's history. The cuts he called for, in areas like veterans' medical care, farm subsidies and vocational training, were met in Washington with doubts that they would ever get through the Republican Congress.

"Republicans have lost their way," lamented Newt Gingrich, the government-slashing firebrand of a decade ago.

In 1995, a band of 73 freshman Republicans swept into the House of Representatives, with Mr. Gingrich as their speaker. Flush with ideological zeal and determined to get government off the backs of the people, as Ronald Reagan would say, they pushed through a budget resolution that called for eliminating scores of programs and three federal departments.

Their fervor was so politically potent that in 1996, a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, declared, "The era of big government is over."

Yet government has only grown. The Cato Institute, a libertarian research institution, says overall federal spending has increased twice as fast under Mr. Bush as under Mr. Clinton. At the same time, the federal deficit is projected to hit a record high of $427 billion this year.

These trends seem likely to continue. The White House estimated last week that the cost of prescription drugs for Medicare beneficiaries, originally projected at $400 billion from 2004 to 2013, would, in fact, be $724 billion from 2006 to 2015. Republicans called for scaling back the benefit, but on Friday, Mr. Bush said no and vowed to veto any changes to the Medicare bill.

"The era of big government being over is over," declared Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist Democratic research organization. That would certainly seem to be borne out in the record of the Republican revolutionaries, known as the "Class of 1994" for the year they were elected. Of the 30 who are still in the House of Representatives, 28 hsponsored bills in the last Congress that would have increased government spending overall, according to the National Taxpayers Union, an antitax group.

Some of the expansion in government was beyond their control. One big reason for the rise in spending is the growth of mandatory entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid. Another is the administration's "war on terror"; the government has added an entire new agency, the Department of Homeland Security, since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has spent many billions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Those were legitimate reasons for more expansive spending," said Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota. "But we can no longer hide behind that."

Republicans like Mr. Thune say they are pleased that Mr. Bush's budget calls for cutting or eliminating 150 programs, and they applaud his promise to cut the deficit in half within five years. Yet the old Gingrich revolutionaries have lowered their battle cry to a whimper; instead of demanding that federal agencies be put out of business, they are fighting among themselves over small-bore questions of what to cut and what to keep.

"The Gingrich revolution was about system change," said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, a member of the Class of 1994. "Now we're in the weeds of government, this program and that program, and we've lost the big picture."

To most Americans, the federal budget, more than 2,000 pages of fine print, is hard to grasp; it isn't easy to summon a mental image of $2.57 trillion. One way to look at it is to consider how much the government spends per household. In the 1990's, the figure held steady at about $18,000, according to Brian M. Riedl, a budget analyst for the Heritage Foundation. But last year, it exceeded $20,000, adjusted for inflation, the highest amount since World War II. But the government only takes in $17,000 for each household. "So right there," Mr. Reidl said, "we're borrowing $3,000 per household."

Mr. Riedl says the Republicans lost their zeal for spending cuts after 1995, when Congress forced a government shutdown over a budget impasse with President Clinton. The effort came off as mean-spirited and petty, and Republicans took the blame.

For Mr. Gingrich, the architect of the shutdown, the costs were especially high. He left government soon after, a reminder of how much easier it is to be a revolutionary than to govern.

"Ever since the government shutdown was determined to be a political loser for Republicans," Mr. Riedl said, "they have been tentative to take on spending."

By 1998, they didn't have to. That was the year Mr. Clinton and Congress balanced the budget. Without a deficit to rail against, conservatives had little reason to call for spending cuts. And with the budget in surplus, they learned what the Democrats, who had ruled the House for 40 years without interruption, had long known: constituents reward lawmakers who bring federal money home.

"Too many people started to believe that the surest path to re-election is to spend money rather than cut government," says Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican. "The material that comes from the Republican caucus is not to call for the elimination of this program or that, it's to brag that we have increased the budget for education by 144 percent."

That is not surprising, says Mr. Wittmann of the Democratic Leadership Council. "Yesterday's revolutionaries are today's pragmatic politicians," he said. "It's a classic tale of any revolution. They start out as revolutionaries wanting to storm the Bastille and the end up as 'All the King's Men.' "

There are still revolutionaries out there. Mr. Gingrich, for one, still advocates "very large-scale change."

Mr. Bush's budget, for instance, proposes cuts only in so-called nondefense discretionary spending. A very small slice of the budget pie, roughly one-sixth of the total, is devoted neither to the military nor to the entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Until Congress overhauls these and other entitlements, Mr. Gingrich says, spending will never be brought into line, and many of his former disciples agree.

"We need to be braver when it comes to putting the reforms of entitlements on the table," said Mr. Graham, the South Carolina senator. The Medicare prescription drug bill, Mr. Graham said, "was a reform that included new goodies. We need to put some reforms on the table that require sacrifice. That's the Republican Party I miss."

With President Bush asking Congress to overhaul another entitlement program - Social Security - it may be difficult for lawmakers to find the energy and time to do as Mr. Graham suggests.

Still, Republicans say they sense a new budget-cutting fervor on Capitol Hill. Some conservatives whose arms were twisted by their leaders to vote in favor of the Medicare prescription drug bill are vowing, "Never again."

Last week, Representative Jim Nussle, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, warned that Mr. Bush should be prepared to use his veto power, something he has not done since he became president, to enforce spending limits.

To former Gingrich revolutionaries like Representative Sue Myrick, Republican of South Carolina, that was good news.

"We haven't given up," said Ms. Myrick, who is one of the two representatives from the Class of 1994 who has continued to sponsor bills that would result in lower government spending (the other is Steve Chabot of Ohio). "I'm more encouraged this year than I've been since 1994."

Mr. Flake, the Arizona Congressman, said the future of his party hinges on the revolution's revival. "If voters want bigger government," he warned, "then sooner or later they'll return to the genuine article, and that's the Democrats."