I have done my share of whining about spendthrift Republicans in Congress (see here, has links to other posts). Now some Republicans are waking up to the very real possibility that they could lose one or both Congressional majorities in November due to voter dissatisfaction. A couple of bills are in the offing that aim to force some fiscal responsibility down Congress’ throat (see National Review article).
The cynic in me says this is simply election year grandstanding. Every two years we are regaled with a cacophony of cries about election year politicking and pandering to voters. But I wish to point out that not all pandering is bad. It is part of the vision the Founders had of trying to make representatives at least somewhat beholden to the people they represent.
Sometimes our politicians seem blissfully unaware of who elected them. Part of the reason for this is that even with gerrymandered secure districts, politics is still volatile. It’s not always easy to predict which districts will go which way or to predict which issues will become important enough for the public to use them as significant decision-making factors inside the voting booth. Politicians are continually hoping to pander to that small group that might provide the all important swing vote while simultaneously trying to keep their base voters happy.
In our representative democracy, those that represent us have a very complex job to do when it comes to determining what we (a very diverse group of individuals with competing interests) really want. Then they have to balance that understanding with what they truly believe will be in the best interest of the country, given their grasp of the issues. Sprinkle generously with ego and selfishness, mix well, and bake at 350° for 24 months, and it’s anybody’s guess what the outcome will look like.
Some conservatives are happy to point out (here) that tax cuts—particularly the Bush tax cuts—actually do spur the economy, causing an increase in revenue. They note that the deficit is on the decline and that it looks like it will actually be tamed within the next few years. Great. I’m happy. I have rarely seen a tax cut I didn’t like. I agree that government should let citizens keep more of their own money.
But when it comes to government invasion into our daily lives, revenue gathering is less than half of the story. It is the spending that is the elephant in the living room. Some that style themselves as conservatives seem to think that government can spend whatever it wants as long as it has sufficient revenue to cover the expenses. But it is what government spends that determines the extent of its involvement in citizens’ daily lives through myriad regulations that influence just about everything we do. It is the amount government spends and they way it is spent that determines whether government exists to serve the citizens or whether the citizens exist to support government.
For this reason, the average annual 8% increase in domestic spending under President Bush and the Republican Congress has me up in arms. OK, so they’re bringing the deficit down. Wonderful. They should do that. Gee, maybe they shouldn’t have caused it in the first place. And isn’t it possible that they could bring the deficit down a lot faster if they cut spending back to the 3.3% (annual domestic) increase they held it to during the Clinton years? (OK, let’s stipulate that Clinton compensated by cutting defense spending, a course of action that would have been considered irresponsible in the post-9/11 world.)
Even if we get other domestic spending under control, the cost of our social programs is set to go through the roof over the next several decades. Eventually there won’t be enough income in the entire country to support the current social infrastructure given the numbers slated to become consumers of those programs. Meanwhile many politicians in both parties fiddle while Rome burns. Angry Republicans blame Democrats for killing Social Security reform last year. It’s OK to be upset with Democrats for opposing reform, but come on! Republicans simply weren’t serious about it. Does anyone think they couldn’t have pushed reform through if they were serious about it?
It seems that many current representatives are willing to push these imminent problems onto the next generation. Heck, they’ll all be dead by the time real crisis hits anyway. Many in Congress are content to muddle around in the ubiquitous peripheral governmental issues that are nowhere enumerated in the Constitution, while spending little time or capital on the difficult issues that are actually enumerated. Given the fact that we have chosen to elect these people, what does this say about us?