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Name the date – Fastest rise in federal spending since FDR

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted April 17, 2006

Name the date of publication when this USA Today headline appeared: “Fastest Rise in Federal Spending since FDR.”

Was it 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson was in the White House? 1977, Jimmy Carter’s first year in office? Or 1993, under Bill Clinton? Each Democratic President had majorities of his party in both Houses of Congress.

The answer is: None of the above. The date is April 3, 2006, with President George W. Bush and Republicans in control of both Houses of Congress. USA Today’s Richard Wolf wrote:

The federal government is currently spending 20.8 cents of every $1 the economy generates, up from 18.5 cents in 2001, White House budget documents show. That’s the most rapid growth during one administration since Franklin Roosevelt, who served 1933-45, during the Depression and World War II.

There are no signs that the trend is about to turn around. The House Budget Committee recently rejected a proposal that would require spending hikes to be offset by cuts in other spending or by tax increases.

Increased spending for national defense and homeland security draws its share of brickbats in the news media. Many Americans know that this is one area of federal spending that is merited not only by the Constitution but by terrorism and emerging military threats. Many Americans who advocate increased defense spending want thorough oversight of the spending because they know that permitting waste and fraud to flourish is ultimately self-defeating. Congress simply does not provide adequate oversight.

The Administration and Congress must develop a sense of stronger prioritization of spending. Holding the line on spending – particularly nondefense-related spending – makes sense. Consider this: Brian M. Riedl of the Heritage Foundation says that if federal spending is left unchecked by 2016, balancing the budget would require the average household to face an additional $7,000 in taxes, which would break the economy.

The Republican Study Committee (RSC) deserves credit for pressing the majority party in Congress to hold true to its principles. Its recently unveiled “Contract with America: Renewed” is an alternative budget that seeks a smaller Federal Government.

Here’s how the RSC budget establishes the case for fiscal restraint:

In fiscal year 2005, the federal government spent $2.47 trillion – 49% more than it spent in fiscal year 1995 after adjusting for inflation. The deficit for the current fiscal year is projected to be upwards of $400 billion, the largest nominally in history. In 1995, the public debt limit stood at $4.9 trillion; it now stands at $8.2 trillion, up 67% and yet again in need of an increase. This is not the result of war and economic challenges, as is often claimed, but rather an unwillingness to make choices and trade offs.

Heritage Foundation’s Riedl identifies the goal of the RSC’s “Contract with America: Renewed” as assuring that federal spending would fall 2.8% below the baseline. Federal spending would total $14.213 trillion over the next five fiscal years (2007-2011). Under the RSC budget the total would be $13.821 trillion. The rate of growth in federal spending would be in line with the 1990s rather than the fast rates of this decade. The Federal Budget has shot up by 45% since 2001.

The RSC’s budget proposal, based upon the 1995 Contract with America, suggests a number of budget items for elimination. They include but are certainly not limited to such possibilities as:

  • Advanced Technology Program
  • Federal Support for Intelligent Transportation Systems
  • Corporation for Public Broadcasting
  • Legal Services Corporation
  • U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration

All are examples of programs that can be undertaken by the private sector or state and local governments and in some cases such efforts already exist. For instance, 85% of the funding for the Public Broadcasting System comes from funding sources other than the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the $400 million it receives annually in federal funds. The House Budget Committee in a report in 1996 made the point that “A phase out of federal funding for [the Legal Services Corporation] will not eliminate free legal aid for the poor. State and local governments, bar associations, and other organizations already provide substantial legal aid to the poor.” Many states and U.S.–owned companies promote tourism, negating an urgent need for Congress to fund a national tourism and travel effort. RSC suggests that it is the states – not the Federal Government – that should examine the use of intelligent systems for highway travel. A 2005 Government Accountability Office report questioned the effectiveness of the federally funded research of the Intelligent Transportation Systems.

One suggested program for elimination is the Applied Research for Energy Conservation and Renewable Energy Sources. RSC points out that “government spending on energy conservation has been significantly less successful” than that which has been undertaken by the private sector. Tax incentives exist to encourage private research and it should not be the Federal Government’s role to favor particular technologies.

Another area that should be sliced is the Applied Research for Fossil Fuels Energy. The Department of Energy receives $500 million annually to conduct applied research on petroleum, natural gas and coal. RSC argues that the Federal Government can fund basic research (research without an immediate commercial benefit) but “should not be engaged in applied research – particularly when this type of research is conducted by numerous private sector suppliers generating extensive general revenues with which they fund private fossil fuel research.” Government-subsidized applied research for energy companies often turns out to be “corporate welfare.”

The RSC Budget calls for freezing funding in FY 2007 at the Department of Energy at 65% of the FY 2006 level of $24,344,638. The freeze would continue for the next four fiscal years. Calls are also made within the RSC Budget for slashing expense accounts and salaries at the Departments of Interior and Agriculture by ten percent to foster “maximum efficiency and fiscal responsibility at the bureaucratic level of both departments” and to slice salaries and expenses by five percent at five offices within the Department of Health and Human Services. Thirty percent of the budget would be eliminated at the Department of Education because a number of its programs would be cut.

Many Americans will be concerned when they read the budget and its suggestions.

President John F. Kennedy, in his Inauguration Address, issued his famous challenge to Americans, urging them to “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy spoke those words at the height of the Cold War, referring to service in terms of the military and the forthcoming Peace Corps. There was a sense that the Federal Government could solve any problem with effort and money.

We are in a new era and the words of Kennedy’s challenge are relevant in a changed context. (It bears noting that JFK’s brother, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the so-called “keeper of the flame,” would disagree with the RSC Budget.) The United States confronts economies on the upswing in China and India, a deadly threat from terrorism, and perhaps looming danger militarily from China and the rogue states of Iran and North Korea. At the same time the Federal Government has amassed program upon program and created new Cabinet agencies, all without a sense of prioritization within the Federal Government.

The RSC budget is a call for Americans to sacrifice in a different way. It presents an interesting and complex challenge to its advocates -- that is, convincing the American people it is in their best interest to have a smaller federal role in many areas. Proponents of the status quo will resist the proposed changes and capitalize upon the anxiety that such changes will provoke in many Americans.

Success in implementing the RSC budget suggestions will depend upon the ability of conservative leaders to promote a new ethic of citizenship by encouraging realistic and effective alternatives of private-sector and nonprofit initiatives – what Ronald Reagan called “The Creative Society” -- which can draw public support in lieu of diminished federal spending. Americans need to know the cost of unchecked federal spending and continued top-down management of their lives by Washington; more importantly, they need to be presented with a reassuring vision of their lives without Washington as they have come to know it. Absent that, there indeed will be good reason to talk about paring down and reprioritizing the Federal Government. Will the people be willing to listen now or have inflicted upon them a crushing level of debt and huge tax increases?

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.





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