As we enter the final weeks of the election campaign, it’s time for both candidates to explain their views on the proper size and role of government.
Republican John McCain promises that if he wins he’ll order “a comprehensive review of all programs, projects and activities of the federal government and then propose a plan to reprioritize where needed and terminate individual programs.” Democrat Barack Obama suggests much the same, saying he “will stop funding wasteful, obsolete federal government programs that make no financial sense.”
We’ve heard such words before. But much like the Energizer bunny, government just keeps growing and growing.
In the current fiscal year, Washington will spend $2.93 trillion - more than 4 times the amount it spent in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs and the Vietnam War helped boost spending to $627.6 billion.
Meanwhile, the government will take in an estimated $2.5 trillion in taxes in the current fiscal year, roughly $22,100 per household.
Contrary to popular belief - and campaign rhetoric - the explosive growth of government has occurred under Democratic and Republican administrations alike. In truth, the political system is rigged to encourage such growth.
The U.S. Department of Education, for example, will spend more than $68 billion in the current fiscal year. The average taxpayer’s share of this, however, is just $582: $48.50 per month, or $1.60 per day. There aren’t too many taxpayers who will wage war about the Education Department when that’s all it’s costing them.
On the other hand, a whole host of special-interest organizations will fight for every dollar of that $68 billion and more: organizations representing teachers, principals, administrators, school boards, textbook publishers, and so on. Federal funds are essential to these special interests and they will lobby for increases at every turn, as other interest groups lobby for additional funds for their favored programs.
In 2007 alone, more than 15,600 registered lobbyists spent more than $2.8 billion to influence federal legislation and tax and spending policy. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, organized labor alone spent more than $44.3 million on lobbying last year; business interests spent nearly double that amount, an estimated $87.2 million.
Both presidential candidates, on their campaign Web sites, promise to reduce the influence of lobbyists. Sen. Barack Obama’s page opens with a quote from a 2007 speech in which he says: “I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over. … They have not funded my campaign, they will not run my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am president.” Not to be outdone, Sen. John McCain’s Web site offers the following proclamation: “As president, John McCain will see to it that the institutions of self-government are respected pillars of democracy, not commodities to be bought, bartered, or abused.”
But when you look at the candidates’ fund-raising, a different story is revealed: large numbers of contributions - and large amounts of money - from individuals and organizations that want something from Washington. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics estimates that Mr. Obama’s fund-raising from industry and professional groups alone had reached nearly $30 million by June 30; Mr. McCain’s total was an estimated $17.5 million.
What will a President McCain or President Obama do when financial supporters ask for “special consideration”? Probably what other presidents and lesser government officials have been doing in the past: “selling” programs, bartering regulations and spending taxpayer dollars for the benefit of various constituent groups whose votes and contributions they received - and hope to receive again.
Inevitably, special-interest lobbying and the growth of government come at the expense of all citizens and taxpayers, most of whom receive no direct benefit from increased spending. As the late Col. E.C. Harwood, founder of the American Institute for Economic Research, said: “It follows that if there are men in society who are able to get something for nothing, other men must be getting nothing for something.”
Richard Ebeling is a senior research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research (www.aier.org), Great Barrington, Mass., and is the Shelby C. Davis Visiting Professor in Economics at Trinity College, Hartford, Conn.