After six budget showdowns, big government is mostly unchanged
After 21 / 2 years of budget battles, this is what the federal government looks like now:
It is on pace, this year, to spend $3.455 trillion.
That figure is down from 2010 — the year that worries about government spending helped bring on a tea party uprising, a Republican takeover in the House and then a series of ulcer-causing showdowns in Congress.
But it is not down by that much. Back then, the government spent a whopping $3.457 trillion.
Measured another way — not in dollars, but in people — the government has about 4.1 million employees today, military and civilian. That’s more than the populations of 24 states.
Back in 2010, it had 4.3 million employees. More than the populations of 24 states.
Today, another budget fight looms. If Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on spending levels by Oct. 1, there could be a government shutdown. Followed, perhaps, by a national credit default.
That will be showdown number seven. To assess what the first six accomplished, The Washington Post tried to measure the government in four different dimensions: federal expenditures, federal workers, federal rules and federal real estate.
The first two were down, slightly. The third was way up. And in the fourth case, the government itself wasn’t sure what happened.
In every category there was evidence that — even as politicians made some headway in reducing the budget — they could not shake many of the old habits that made government big in the first place. They allowed duplication to live. They let “temporary” giveaways turn permanent. And they yielded to inertia, declining to revisit expensive old decisions.
The result was that Congress often passed up “smart cuts” in favor of dumb ones — taking broad hacks at the budget, instead of pruning away what was unnecessary.
“For all the brave talk, one single fact has trumped all this great rhetoric. Most of the people who came in saying, ‘We’re going to change Washington,’ simply didn’t understand Washington,” said Steve Bell, a longtime Republican staffer who now works at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Bell’s point is that today’s politicians do not understand the political forces that produce and then protect inefficient programs. Or the difficulty of changing the social-benefit programs — such as Medicare and Social Security — that spend the bulk of Washington’s money.
“That kind of hard-edged budget work . . . is just too complicated. And just too politically incendiary, for this town to do,” Bell said. “That’s why this town hasn’t done it.”
The reduction in federal spending since 2010 is still something historic. Any reduction in spending would have been, after a decades-long spending binge that peaked in the first years of President Obama’s term.
This year, the government’s spending is projected to be down by about 5 percent from 2010, accounting for inflation.
But even now, the government still spends a vast amount of money.
This year’s projected spending will be more than in any year of the George W. Bush administration. And more than 30 percent higher (accounting for inflation) than the last year of President Clinton’s term.