A Million Here, a Million There ...

If the American people were to vote the GOP into the majority, reads the document produced by congressional Republicans, it would shrink government down to size, bringing "the end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public's money." The claim seems perfectly sincere -- after all, Republicans have always expressed their desire for a smaller government, and if given the opportunity to run Congress, they would certainly put the brakes on out-of-control spending.

The document in question, though, isn't the "Pledge to America" the GOP released last week; it is the "Contract With America" the GOP produced 16 years ago. Republicans got their election victory all right, but reducing the size of government? Not so much. The federal government spent $1.46 trillion in 1994, the year Republicans took over. Spending increased every one of the 12 years they controlled Congress; in 2006, their last year in charge, spending was $2.66 trillion, or more than 80 percent higher than it had been when they started.

Republicans are right when they point out that federal spending increased significantly during the first two years of the Obama administration, mostly due to the stimulus bill Democrats passed in 2009 as a response to the Great Recession. Where they're wrong is in describing that increase as something qualitatively different from what we've seen in the past. In fact, our federal budget has been rising steadily for the last half-century.

Federal spending.jpg

This history demonstrates that the ideology of those who are constructing these budgets seems to have only the barest relationship to how big government gets. Spending went up when Ronald Reagan was president, and when Bill Clinton was president, and when George W. Bush was president. It went up when times were good, and it went up when times were bad. In fact, only once in the last 40 years has the federal budget in a given year been lower than what it had been the year before, even after inflation is taken into account.

Of course, conservatives believe this is exactly the problem. But it has been true in both Republican and Democratic administrations and with both Republican and Democratic Congresses.

There are some very good reasons why. First, our population keeps growing, by thousands every day, creating more demands on government. Second, the increasing complexity of modern life brings our society a steady stream of new challenges, some of which have to be met by government. Before the widespread adoption of the automobile, we didn't need an interstate highway system. But when that need became apparent, President Dwight Eisenhower stepped up and spent the money. Those roads then needed to be maintained. That meant more government spending -- spending that virtually no one thinks wasn't a good idea.

Another reason spending keeps increasing is that both parties have types of spending that they would like to see continue to climb. For instance, Republican members of Congress don't think defense spending should ever be reduced; in other words, we should always spend more than we did the year before forever and ever. And we certainly do; according to White House budget documents, we spent $636 billion on the Department of Defense in 2009, we're spending $688 billion in 2010, and we'll spend $718 billion in 2011. That doesn't even include the Homeland Security budget or the military costs spread around other departments like the Department of Energy.

Once we remove all the items that one party or the other will fight to the death to keep, we're left with barely anything to cut. Look at the GOP's "Pledge to America." After all sorts of talk about the awfulness of deficits, the document claims that "with common-sense exceptions for seniors, veterans, and our troops, we will roll back government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels." In other words, they exempt military spending, Social Security, and Medicare -- the three biggest parts of the budget -- from any cuts they might want to make. It's kind of like saying that except for ice cream, cheesesteaks, and potato chips -- oh, and breakfast, lunch, and dinner -- I'm really going to start cutting the calories.

And that's before you get to the fact that Republicans also want to extend all the Bush tax cuts, which will add as much as $3.7 trillion to the debt over the next decade. As Paul Krugman put it recently, "In essence, what they say is, 'Deficits are a terrible thing. Let's make them much bigger.'"

Our government is still much smaller than those of other countries in what we used to call the First World. As these data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show, only a few developed countries spend less than we do on our government (the data combine federal, state, and local government):

OECD spending.jpg

Our federal spending has increased by a few points in the last two years (from 20.7 percent of gross domestic product in 2008 to 24.7 percent in 2009), but it is still small compared to that of our friends in Europe. Of course, that doesn't tell us what the optimal level of government is. Perhaps you believe that the French or Swedes or Danes, with a public sector about 50 percent larger than ours, are terribly oppressed by their governments. It's hard, though, to argue seriously that an increase of 4 percentage points of GDP takes us from blessed capitalism to dystopian statist nightmare.

All these are facts, but the unfortunate thing about facts is that they don't often change how people feel about government. We might not have the universal health care and child care that our friends in Europe get, but we still get all kinds of benefits from the government here in America. It's just that many of us like to pretend that either we created those benefits ourselves, or they arrived by magic. The meter reader writing you a parking ticket is "government" you can be mad at, but the road you're parked on is just yours to use -- who knows who built it, and who cares?

Politicians can fulminate all they want about the $2 million earmark or the silly sounding $150,000 research project. But the truth is that government spending is going to continue to rise, because neither Democrats nor Republicans really want government to get smaller -- at least not badly enough to cut it in a meaningful way. It can rise at a slower or faster rate, depending on the decisions we make (the biggest source of future spending is Medicare and Medicaid, a problem the Affordable Care Act begins to tackle). But no matter who wins the election this year, or in 2012, or in any other year, it's going to keep growing.

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