ONCE UPON A time a Republican candidate for president named George W. Bush painted his Democratic opponent, Al Gore, as a reckless big spender whose fiscal policies would mean that "the era of big government being over is over."
Elect Gore, the Republican predicted, and before you know it the federal government would be as bloated and malodorous as a beached whale under a hot sun. "He is proposing the largest increase in federal spending . . . since the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson," Bush warned. "His promises throw the budget out of balance. He offers a big federal spending program to nearly every single voting bloc in America."
So where do things stand three years later? Federal spending is growing faster than at any time since LBJ, the budget is hundreds of billions of dollars out of balance, and the president appears to support new or expanded government programs for just about every voting bloc in America.
It all calls to mind a political joke that made the rounds in the late 1960s: They told me that if I voted for Goldwater, we'd have race riots in our cities and half a million troops in Southeast Asia. Well, I voted for Goldwater -- and they turned out to be right!
But the fiscal debauchery of the Bush administration is no joke. Even before signing a huge expansion of Medicare into law this week, Bush was presiding over record-busting levels of federal spending. Brian Riedl, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, points out in a new monograph that government outlays in 2003 -- a staggering $2.15 trillion -- came to more than $20,000 per household. By that measure, government spending (in real dollars) is the highest it's been since World War II.
To be sure, some new spending was necessitated by Sept. 11. But as Riedl notes, most of the Bush budget bloat has had nothing to do with the war on terror, homeland security, or military operations. Between 2001 and 2003, the federal budget exploded by $296 billion, of which $100 billion (34 percent) was for defense and $32 billion (11 percent) was for 9/11-related costs, including compensation for victims and reconstruction in New York. The remaining $164 billion -- 55 percent -- went for programs and projects unconnected to 9/11.
To accommodate the extra costs of the war, the president and Congress could have cut back on nonessential spending. Instead they are choosing to lavish more money on both. The entire spending spree is being financed with borrowed funds, which is why the Congressional Budget Office forecasts a deficit of $401 billion this year, $480 billion in 2004, and nearly $1.5 trillion over the next five years. (And that doesn't include the new Medicare drug benefit, which will add tens of billions of dollars to annual federal outlays). But sooner or later, every penny of those deficits will have to be repaid -- if not by us, then by our children.
What is especially outrageous about this Republican immoderation is how much of it is devoted to pure pork -- local projects that have no national significance or constitutional justification. As recently as five years ago, there were fewer than 2,000 pork projects, or "earmarks," in the federal budget. In 2003, there were more than 9,300, and the number will be even higher in 2004. The pork-packed omnibus appropriations bill now making its way through Congress contains hundreds of earmarks, including:
$725,000 for the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia;
$1.8 million for the Women's World Cup tournament;
$325,000 for the construction of a swimming pool in Salinas, Calif.;
$220,000 for the New Mexico Retail Association in Albuquerque;
$270,000 for "sustainable olive production";
$400,000 for the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky.;
$2 million for the First Tee golf program in St. Augustine, Fla.;
$315,000 for Formosan Subterranean Termite research;
$270,000 for potato storage in Madison, Wis.
Long, long ago, in what now seems like a galaxy far, far away, Republicans opposed this kind of fiscal gluttony. The GOP was the party of budgetary sobriety -- the party that believed in local responsibility for local budgets and that didn't raid the federal treasury to buy off special interests. Back then, Republicans criticized Democratic profligacy. Now they seek to outdo it.
When Bill Clinton was president, Republicans in Congress fought hard to cut spending and balance the federal budget, with the result that government outlays during Clinton's first three years rose only 3.5 percent. But once there was a Republican in the White House, the GOP's fiscal discipline evaporated. Spending during Bush's first three years has skyrocketed nearly 16 percent, a record of fiscal irresponsibility we haven't seen since LBJ.
Now, what did say was going to happen if we elected Al Gore?
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.