Amidst heated Democratic denunciations of the Bush tax cut in the face of a declining surplus, one would think that Congress would kill at least one stupid pork barrel project.
Not a chance. Legislators consistently put the political imperative before the national interest.
Thus, despite President Bill Clinton’s oft-repeated claim that “the era of big government is over,” the federal behemoth looks very big indeed.
In fact, the Tax Foundation reports that Tax Freedom Day, when we start to work for ourselves, didn’t occur until May 3, the latest ever.
The average American spends more than a third of his day working for the government to pay for projects like repairing the statue of Vulcan, the Roman God of fire, located in Birmingham, Ala. The 56-year-old statue was moved to Birmingham from St. Louis in 1938.
The years have not been kind to Vulcan, so the city dismantled him lest he topple upon an innocent bystander. Residents want him fixed, but private fund-raising has lagged. So the city turned to Congress, winning $3 million in committee. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, took to the Senate floor to denounce this pagan subsidy. Alas, his amendment went down to a crushing defeat, 87-12. So much for concern over the waning surplus.
Similar is the saga of wool and mohair (from goats) supports. Supposedly killed in 1993, this special interest rip-off was resurrected six years later as a “temporary” measure. Congress approved $20 million for impecunious sheep and goats this year and in June voted an extra $16.9 million in supplemental spending.
Several congressmen are trying to kill the program, but they aren’t likely to succeed. After all, explains Zane Willard, executive director of the Mohair Council of America, “That’s what our government’s there for.”
Unfortunately, Tax Freedom Day is only the day we stop paying taxes. It is not the day we stop paying for government regulation as well as spending. That wasn’t until July 6, which Americans for Tax Reform terms Cost of Government Day. This is also the latest point ever, up from June 18 when Ronald Reagan left office. ATR figures that federal, state, and local taxes come to $3.147 trillion while federal and state regulation runs $1.419 trillion.
Only a resolute campaign by President George W. Bush can turn the tide. He has started on taxes, but it is only a start. His reduction was small, compared to the overall tax burden, and back-loaded, making it an easy future target for legislators seeking more money to spend. These long-term cuts should be accelerated.
At the same time, Congress should slash outlays. Killing pork — like money for Birmingham’s Vulcan — is part of the solution.
Legislators also must target Uncle Sam’s endless benefit soup line. The Government Assistance Almanac, published by Omnigraphics, details the 1454 federal domestic assistance programs. There is virtually nothing Washington does not fund.
Moreover, shrinking government requires Social Security reform. With the system rushing toward insolvency, legislators must allow workers to contribute to private, financially sound investments. That would ultimately reduce government outlays.
Finally, the administration must roll back regulations. President Bush has started on the 1,766 “midnight” Clinton regulations which the former president rammed through during his last three weeks in office. But there are many more to go.
Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels explains “We’re in favor of wise regulation, not no regulation.” Fair enough, but no regulation is often the right answer: CAFE mileage standards, for instance, save little energy while pushing people into smaller, more dangerous cars.
In a new study for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, “Ten Thousand Commandments,” Cato Institute scholar Clyde Wayne Crews looks at the cost and scope of the regulatory state.
The record is grim. Between 1999 and 2000 total regulatory costs rose 1.7 percent, while agency budgets increased 6.6 percent. There were 4.3 percent more Federal Register pages and 21.2 percent additional pages detailing final rules.
Moreover, in just that one year, the number of “economically significant” rules (costing more than $100 million annually) in the regulatory pipeline was up 15.3 percent. The number of major rules finalized by the agency jumped an incredible 63 percent.
Cutting taxes is easy compared to rolling back regulation. Nevertheless, an administration committed to “wise regulation” should systematically target today’s routine excesses. Mr. Crews suggests requiring agencies to issue detailed regulatory report cards and Congress to approve new rules.
Legislators are crying poverty. But as long as they waste money to fix a decrepit statue of Vulcan and to subsidize sheep and goats, voters can’t take them seriously.
Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is a nationally syndicated columnist.