Jewish World Review Jan. 15, 2002 / 2 Shevat, 5762
The era of GOP big government begins
IS PRESIDENT BUSH a big government conservative? Yes, a point that will be affirmed when the White House's new federal budget (for fiscal 2003) is unveiled early next month. "The president didn't say, 'I want it to be a big government conservative budget,'" says a White House aide. What he ordered up, according to budget director Mitch Daniels, is "a budget of big projects." And these are projects the government is to carry out: winning the war on terrorism, building up the military, creating a system of homeland security, and reviving the economy. For Bush, achieving these is more important than balancing the budget. By definition, that makes him a big government conservative--that is, a conservative willing to embrace deficit spending for the sake of large, critical government programs.
That's not the only mark of big government conservatives. As a type, they tend to be realistic and programmatic. They take a relatively benign view of government and aggressively seek to expand the programs they believe in. A sense of realism means big government conservatives, Bush included, recognize Americans like big government. And this sense also keeps them from tilting at windmills. This is reflected in Bush's downgrading of Social Security reform, a cherished priority but one whose time is not expected to come soon. Programmatic? That involves staying on offense politically by proposing new programs, often of small size and limited reach, for whatever national problems crop up. For big problems, however, there are big solutions. Thus Bush will propose billions in his new budget for what Daniels calls "a comprehensive network for homeland security" that includes new infrastructure, especially at airports.
It's no secret that Bush has a more positive view of government than do most conservatives. He made that clear in the 2000 campaign and again last week when he and Democratic senator Teddy Kennedy celebrated the signing of a new education bill that enhances the federal role in education and allocates billions in new federal spending. And of course he's neither a libertarian nor a "leave us alone" conservative. His self-identification as a "compassionate conservative" is based implicitly, as Michael Barone has pointed out, on the duty of government to aid the poor and less fortunate. Conservatives eager to reduce government have been assuaged by Bush's tax cuts, but Daniels expects they'll find fault with the new budget. So-called "national greatness" conservatives will probably be pleased, since the top priority is the same as theirs, supporting a vast national project, the war on terrorism.
Big government conservatives such as former education secretary Bill Bennett relish what they dub "programs that work." Bush and Daniels have taken up this notion with something called "performance-based budgeting." The idea is to use empirical evidence to assess the effectiveness of domestic programs, then jack up spending for those that work and reduce or eliminate it for those that don't. This is easier said than done. The problem, says Daniels, is that there is "very little" data one way or the other. Bureaucrats, wary of accountability, like it that way. "The burden of proof in most of life is on the spender" to justify spending, the budget chief says. "In government, it works the other way around. We've got to turn that around."
Daniels found enough data on three programs to propose significantly higher spending, one of which may shock conservatives. He signaled this by bringing the heads of these three programs with him in November when he spoke to the National Press Club. The surprising one is the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC) for poor women who are pregnant. In the early 1980s, President Reagan and his budget director, David Stockman, fought to kill this program and came close to succeeding. Now, Daniels says, WIC has provable results: lower health care costs, reduced anemia rates, lower infant mortality, increased immunizations, and "other hard, tangible measures." WIC, Daniels told the press club, "is a sound investment of the public's and the taxpayer's dollar."
The two other programs that work are the National Weather Service and the National Science Foundation. The weather bureau "has staked itself to specific goals and met them and surpassed them" according to Daniels. "Tornado warning times, flash flood lead times have more than doubled." As for the science foundation, it has low overhead and more than 95 percent of its funds go out on a competitive basis. "It has supported 8 of the 12 most recent Nobel Prize awards earned by Americans at some point in their careers."
Extolling federal programs is not a common practice of budget directors. But no doubt Bush will repeat some of Daniels's kind assessments in his State of the Union address on January 29, along with praise for the military. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has asked for a jump in Pentagon spending for fiscal 2003 from the $302 billion envisioned in President Clinton's last budget to $350 billion, and he'll probably get a good chunk of the proposed hike. Given the war on terrorism, Bush and Rumsfeld have abandoned their desire to cut spending for troops, planes, helicopters, and artillery--a decision that falls under the big-government-conservative category of realism.
Daniels insists a balanced budget "should be a fundamental goal of government," but "there are things that come ahead of it." They are war, recession, and a national emergency. "We have all three," he says. Taking them into account, a senior Bush adviser says, "there was no way to avoid a deficit." A tax increase was never considered--quite the contrary. The deficit shouldn't be a big political problem, the senior aide says. Rather, the American people have a "mature view" of the budget and the economy and understand that "sacrifices need to be made" in wartime. As a big government conservative, Bush is ready for America to make
Fred Barnes is Executive editor at the Weekly Standard. Comment by clicking here.
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