- The Washington Times - Monday, September 29, 2003

A long time ago, by which I mean the year 2000, conservatives didn’t want to expand the size and reach of government. Today, it’s plain their sentiments have changed. They still don’t want Democrats to expand the size and reach of government. But when Republicans do it — well, let the good times roll.

Being a libertarian, I often disagree with conservatives. But conservatives have traditionally shared the libertarian view that the central government is too big, too expensive, too powerful and too intrusive. Lately, though, they’ve been AWOL on the issue.

This is quite a change. Ronald Reagan earned a place in history with his efforts to scale back the federal mammoth. And Republicans have invoked the same theme ever since. “Big government is not the answer,” George W. Bush said during the 2000 campaign.

Back then, Mr. Bush warned that if Al Gore were elected, he would boost federal spending, enlarge the federal bureaucracy, expand entitlements and — this is my favorite — “throw the budget out of balance.” Most likely Mr. Bush was right. What he didn’t tell us is that if Mr. Gore were defeated, the same things would happen.

Mr. Bush’s Inauguration was to big government what the repeal of Prohibition was to distillers. He has yet to propose the abolition of a single major federal program, and he has lavished money on many of them. Congressional Budget Office projections indicate that by 2005, federal spending will be $540 billion higher than it was in 2001 — a four-year increase of 29 percent that dwarfs the 14 percent increase during Bill Clinton’s first term.

It’s hard to blame all this on Democrats in Congress, since (1) Democrats don’t control either house of Congress and (2) Mr. Bush has never vetoed a spending bill. By contrast, his father, never a favorite of the right, repeatedly used his veto power to keep spending under control.

During the Clinton administration, House Republicans pushed through a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. They also forced Mr. Clinton to accept a plan to eliminate the deficit. They were proud to champion fiscal discipline, despite the political risks.

But that spirit apparently departed about the same time Newt Gingrich did. With one of their own in the White House, Republicans on Capitol Hill have cheerfully cooperated in policies that helped squander a surplus projected at $5.6 trillion over 10 years, replacing it with a $2.3 trillion shortfall. Next year alone, the administration says, the deficit will reach $525 billion.

Those numbers don’t capture all the obligations future taxpayers will have to finance. David Walker, comptroller general of the United States, notes that the current national debt of nearly $7 trillion, or about $24,000 for every person in the country, is a vast understatement. It omits the expected costs of providing everything the government has promised in Social Security, Medicare and veterans’ benefits.

These obligations, he said in a recent speech, “are likely to exceed $100,000 in additional burden for every man, woman and child in America today, and these amounts are growing every day.”

We pretend that those commitments don’t exist, but when the time comes, one of two things will happen: Taxpayers will either have to pony up, or promises to recipients will have to be broken. But no one in the administration, or in either party in Congress, proposes to address that dilemma anytime soon.

The government is growing in other ways, too. Though the administration may claim it has slashed the bureaucracy, don’t be fooled. Brookings Institution scholar Paul Light reports that federal civil service employment has declined by nearly 50,000 jobs since 1999, but it’s been eclipsed by the growth of “off-budget” jobs created by contracts and grants.

When these are counted, he finds, “the ‘true size’ of the federal work force stood at 12.1 million in October 2002, up from 11 million in October 1999.” Mr. Clinton started the trend, but Mr. Bush has embraced it with a smile.

Not only is the government getting bigger, it’s doing more. According to an annual report from the Cato Institute, federal regulators are working like beavers to control what we do. In 2002, new regulations filled a record 75,606 pages — up 24 percent from the total in 1993.

If a Democratic president had done all this, Republicans would be howling, and with good reason. But they tamely accept these policies from George W. Bush. Losing the battle against big government is a misfortune, but not a disgrace. Surrendering your principles without a fight — now, that’s something to be embarrassed about.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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