- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 4, 2005

Fred Barnes, the Weekly Standard’s editor and astute political observer, famously coined the phrase “big-government conservative,” which — like law-and-order anarchist or God-fearing atheist — is a contradiction in terms.

Last week in the Standard, Mr. Barnes used quite a different term to describe Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, and other House members urging budget cuts to offset the massive new federal spending envisioned on the damage wreaked by Hurricane Katrina. Mr. Barnes called them “small-government conservatives” — and apparently didn’t mean it as a compliment. The term is a redundancy. Mike Pence is a conservative. Period.

He is also a loyal Republican, who as chairman of the House Republican Study Committee has consistently fought for the “small government” principles that won his party a majority.

Yet, in Mr. Barnes’ analysis, this makes Mr. Pence the leader of a band of unrealistic dreamers, who are obstructing the more plausible aspirations of the White House and congressional Republican leaders. “Small government conservatives have revolted against President Bush and the Republican leadership in the Senate and House,” he writes. “Their goal, with hurricane recovery costs soaring, is what it’s always been: to hold down and restrain the growth of government. It is an impossible dream, or close to impossible.”

Perhaps some Republicans in Washington have forgotten the “Contract With America,” which gained them control of the House in 1994. It promised “the end of government that is too big, too intrusive and too easy with the public’s money.” It even vowed to “cut spending on welfare programs.”

This bold call for smaller government gave the GOP so much political traction that the ever-opportunistic Democratic President Clinton — who spent his first two years in office trying to nationalize the health-care system — soon started sounding like a Reagan Republican. “We have worked to give the American people a smaller, less bureaucratic government in Washington,” Mr. Clinton said in his 1996 State of the Union. “The era of big government is over.”

Before that year’s presidential election, the Republican Congress wrestled a campaign-mode Mr. Clinton into signing a sweeping welfare reform bill, which was despised by the base of Mr. Clinton’s own party and sent responsibility for welfare programs back to the states, while limiting how long recipients could remain on the dole. Nine years later, Republicans control both Congress and the White House. But the big government era is returning with a vengeance.

Heritage Foundation budget analyst Brian M. Riedl has factored projected Katrina spending into Congressional Budget Office data and discovered that in fiscal 2006, the federal government will spend $23,638 per household. Mr. Riedl told me — even after adjusting for inflation — that would be the most money the federal government has spent per household since World War II. Worse, $3,796 of next year’s per-household federal spending will be borrowed money.

Even as many American families — practicing fiscal discipline — refrain from running up new debt next year, an all-Republican federal government prepares to charge $3,796 in their name.

Without factoring in any future recession or natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Riedl calculates federal spending will grow to $34,484 per household by fiscal 2015, with the government borrowing $6,958 per household that year.

A large chunk of this increased federal spending will come in the Medicare program, which will jump from $335 billion in fiscal 2005 to $785 billion in fiscal 2015. That increase will be buoyed by the new Medicare prescription drug entitlement President Bush pushed through the Republican Congress in 2003 and scheduled to come online next year. Comptroller General David Walker told the Senate Budget Committee in February that, over the next 75 years, this drug plan alone adds $8.1 trillion in unfunded government liabilities.

Yet, the most dramatic thing Mike Pence and the “small government” Republican Study Committee suggested in their “Operation Offset” announced last week was that Congress save $30.8 billion to help offset the costs of Katrina by delaying the start of the drug plan for just one year.

Mr. Pence and his courageous RSC colleagues deserve a medal of political valor for putting the drug plan back on the table. But it should not be delayed merely one year, it should be permanently canceled.

As for their intraparty adversaries, Fred Barnes wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2003: “Big government conservatives are favorably disposed toward what neoconservative Irving Kristol has called a ‘conservative welfare state.’ ” That puts them on the wrong side of history, and will, if their vision is followed, put America smack in the path of a fiscal storm that will make the one-time relief spending on this year’s hurricanes look like a summer breeze.

Terence P. Jeffrey is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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