As Sen. George Aiken once urged LBJ to "declare victory and get out" of Vietnam, Majority Leader Tom DeLay has informed his colleagues that, in the fight for fiscal responsibility, it is time to declare victory and go home.
Yes, conservatives, we have reached the promised land.
Looking over the budget, one-fifth of our entire economy, DeLay says there is simply no more fat to be found. To cut further is to carve out muscle and bone. "After 11 years of Republican majority, we’ve pared it down pretty good."
Presumably, congratulations are in order. But that is not what is coming The Hammer’s way. "I wonder if we’ve been serving in the same Congress," snorts Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona.
Tom Schatz of Citizens Against Government Waste is readying a list of $2 trillion in budget cuts over five years for the leader’s bed table.
David Keene of the American Conservative Union, sponsor of a recent appreciation dinner to honor the embattled DeLay, noted that, even before Katrina, "spending was spiraling out of control" and conservatives were "losing faith" in Bush and the Republican Congress.
Even if you exclude the military and homeland security, says Keene, spending increased $300 billion between 2001 and 2005, as U.S. debt grew by $2 trillion. This translates into a permanent bite on taxpayers of $100 billion unto eternity, to pay the annual interest on that part of the national debt run up by George W. Bush alone.
DeLay was trying to shore up the leadership’s levee against a storm surge of demands to find spending cuts to offset the Katrina bailout, which is at $62 billion and expected to rise to $200 billion. Among the ideas for "offsets" to pay for relief and reconstruction:
- Rescind the 6,300 pork barrel projects, worth $24 billion, stuffed into the $286 billion transportation stocking six weeks ago.
- Postpone for one year the prescription drug benefit for seniors, which comes on stream in January. Savings: $31 billion.
- An across-the-board 1 percent cut in all spending, including Social Security, Medicare and defense. Savings: around $25 billion.
Deficit hawks are also looking at cuts in foreign aid, funding for public broadcasting, Amtrak subsidies and student loans for postgraduate work. Already, the abolition of death taxes has been put off, as has making the Bush tax cuts permanent.
Most of the Katrina spending will come during FY 2006, which begins next week, but the long-term prognosis for the U.S. budget is, in a word, grave. Consider:
Spending for Katrina, plus the anticipated loss in GDP and tax revenue from that killer hurricane, should send the deficit toward $500 billion in FY 2006. On top of this is the continuing cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, already between $200 billion and $300 billion. Add to this the defense procurement to make good the losses in equipment and the added pay, bonuses and benefits to maintain U.S. force levels against the steady attrition in the Guard and Reserves.
Meanwhile, the first of the baby boomers, the 77 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, start reaching 62 and early retirement in 2008. With Medicare underwater and the Social Security surplus to start shrinking in 2009 and disappear in 2018, these two programs alone could consume, if reforms are not made, 20 percent of GDP by 2050.
What has happened in America is that a sea change has taken place in the character of our national government.
With the passing away of the Greatest Generation and the passing from power of the Silent Generation, born in the Depression and raised in the 1940s and 1950s, the baby boomer generation, in which a "you-can-have-it all!" mindset was early embedded, now runs both parties and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Taft-Goldwater-Reagan-Helms Republicans were prepared to pay the political price for saying "No." But just as the Democrats of the 1930s found the formula for permanent power in "tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect," as Harold Ickes Sr. put it, the Bush Republicans and Big Government Conservatives of the 1990s believe they have found an even surer formula for permanent power: "Cut taxes, spend and spend, elect and elect."
Whether they have or not we will discover in the fall of 2006, but already the battle is being joined inside the GOP, and it will be fought out in the primaries of 2008: deficit hawks vs. Big Government conservatives.
One day, not far off, Americans must choose: Either we keep the empire — or our munificent welfare state. Either we raise taxes and pay as we go — or we run deficits until foreigners cease to lend us the money and the dollar goes the way of the peso.
When Republican leaders are saying there is no more fat in the federal budget, the proper political translation is that the Grand Old Party of Taft, Goldwater, Reagan and Helms is no more. We have become the very people we went into politics to run out of town.