After six budget showdowns, big government is mostly unchanged
It is still so big primarily because Congress and Obama have largely failed to deal with programs such as Medicare, Social Security and food stamps.
These “mandatory spending” programs are very large, accounting for about 60 percent of federal spending. Congress doesn’t set their spending every year. Instead, when need goes up, spending goes up. And, in the recession, need went up.
Even after six paralyzing budget showdowns, this “mandatory” spending has fallen by less than 1 percent. By contrast, spending on “discretionary” expenses — the smaller pot of money that Congress does control every year — has fallen by 14 percent. That reduction is partially due to the winding down of a stimulus and two wars, as well as to “sequestration” and other budget cuts imposed since 2010.
“We’re nowhere. I mean, the sad reality is that we’re nowhere” toward taming those “mandatory” costs, said Gordon Adams, a budget official in the Clinton administration and now a fellow at the Stimson Center.
And now, in a capital burned by six crises, a deal to cut these big-ticket programs seems less likely than ever. “We’ve gotten further away from anything that will bring us to a ‘grand bargain’ right now,” Adams said.
But it is not only the big cuts that Congress has struggled with. It has also found it hard to break several little bad habits that made government fat in the first place. One is pork, the habit of using taxpayer money for a legislator’s pet cause.
Today, its power appears to be stronger even than death.
That’s clear from the story of the Robert C. Byrd Highway, a decades-old road project in West Virginia that had received earmarked funds for years from Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), the longest-serving senator in history, who died in 2010.
The highway has been maligned as a wasteful road to nowhere. But, now, it has outlived earmarks. It has even outlived Byrd.
This year, with continued support from Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) the highway got $40 million in federal money. It will need about that much every year, state officials say, until it’s finished in 2035.
This Congress has also indulged in the habit of letting “temporary” giveaways become effectively permanent. A prime example is the Essential Air Service, a $240 million program that subsidizes flights to 161 small airports.
It was supposed to die in 1988. It didn’t.
Congress has renewed the program, again and again. Now it subsidizes flights to places such as tiny Glendive, Mont., where the government pays for a 19-seat aircraft to visit twice a day.
On average, two people get on each day. The subsidy works out to $836 for each of their tickets.
“If we can’t cut this, we can’t cut anything,” said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), who sponsored an attempt to kill the program last summer.
They can't cut this.
McClintock’s amendment lost by 74 votes. Then he tried again this summer. And lost. Many members explained their “no” votes by saying they were unwilling to sacrifice the subsidies to airports in their districts. “It’s that old problem of concentrated benefits with diffuse costs. The benefits are lavished on a few select communities, and the costs are diffused across the entire tax base,” McClintock said afterward. The beneficiaries, he said, are the only ones who care enough to fight.
Still, McClintock says he’s holding out hope. After all, the first time he got 164 votes in favor of this cut.
This year: 166.