Annapolis Institute Overview


Democrats don’t grasp the vision

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, January 10, 1995

The U.S. government has run up more than $4 trillion in debt. About $1 trillion was accumulated during the nation’s first 200 years, the rest since 1980.

Despite the Clinton administration’s claims about “reducing the deficit,” the Kerry-Danforth Commission report on entitlements and tax reform — released last month — showed that America’s debt is still rising at alarming rates. In fact, Clinton’s contribution to the nation’s debt in his first four years will exceed the debt added by Reagan I, Reagan II or Bush I. Clinton is the biggest taxing and biggest spending president in history — and the big spending has been condoned, even encouraged and increased, by the Democratic-controlled Congress.

The debt has increased primarily because of increases in federal domestic spending — especially spending for Social Security, Medicare and other so-called “entitlements.” These entitlements take money from one American and give it to another. Republicans tried briefly in 1982 to contain entitlement spending, but House Speaker Tip O’Neill charged that Republicans were trying to “cut Social Security.” The Republicans paid for it at the polls in the 1982 congressional elections. Since then, Social Security has been known as the “third rail” in American politics: Step on it and you’re doomed.

I remember attending a talk by House Budget Committee chairman Bill Gray, D-Pa., in 1985, as he boasted how he and his colleagues had successfully resisted initiatives by the newly re-elected Reagan administration to “zero-out” certain programs. The Reagan people wanted to eliminate some programs in order to reduce spending and concentrate resources on programs that work. Instead, Gray said, “We fought to keep them all. And we succeeded. We had to spread the money thin to keep them all funded, but it’s better to underfund good programs like Head Start than to eliminate other programs because then we lose our authority to spend. This way, when the time is ripe, we can crank them up again with supplemental appropriations.”

“Cranking things up” is the mentality that has dominated the Democrat-controlled Congress when they were in the majority — and it still does.

The forces to expand the role of government are powerful and influential. We’ve seen it this past week as Democratic leaders in Congress try to sabotage the balanced budget amendment — not by amassing arguments that it’s a bad idea (and there are some pretty good ones, though I would still support the amendment) but by mobilizing America’s special interests. The tactic: Force Republicans to say where they would cut before passing the amendment.

The good government alternative would be to pass the amendment and force the two parties to work together to make the cuts that will be eventually required by law. But the current tactic tells the American people a lot about the Democrats’ long-term political strategy. Feeding at the public trough on benefits to be paid by our children and grandchildren is still more important than fiscal responsibility.

The Democrats may end up winning the balanced budget battle, but they will lose the war. John Stuart Mill tells why: “One person with a belief is equal to a force of ninety-nine who have only interests.” Interest group politics can never sustain a long-term vision.

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