'Small Government Conservative' is Redundant

Fred Barnes, editor of the Weekly Standard and an astute observer of the political scene, famously coined the phrase “big-government conservative,” which—like law-and-order anarchist or God-fearing atheist—is self-contradictory.

Last week in the Standard, Barnes used quite a different term to describe Indiana Republican Rep. Mike Pence and other House members who are calling for budget cuts to offset the massive new federal spending envisioned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Barnes called them “small-government conservatives”—and apparently didn’t mean it as a compliment.

The term is a redundancy. Mike Pence is a conservative. Period.

He is also a loyal Republican, who as chairman of the House Republican Study Committee has consistently fought for the “small government” principles that won his party a majority in Congress.

Yet, in Barnes’s analysis, this makes Pence the leader of a band of unrealistic dreamers, who are obstructing the more plausible aspirations of the White House and congressional Republican leaders. “Small government conservatives have revolted against President Bush and the Republican leadership in the Senate and House,” he writes. “Their goal, with hurricane recovery costs soaring, is what it’s always been: to hold down and restrain the growth of government. It is an impossible dream or close to impossible.”

It seems that Barnes and some other Republicans in Washington, D.C., have forgotten the “Contract With America,” which gained them control of the House in the 1994 elections. It promised “the end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public’s money.” It even vowed to “cut spending on welfare programs.”

This bold call for smaller government gave the GOP so much political traction that the ever-opportunistic Democratic President Clinton—who spent his first two years in office trying to nationalize the health care system—soon started sounding like a Reagan Republican. “We have worked to give the American people a smaller, less bureaucratic government in Washington,” Clinton said in his 1996 State of the Union. “The era of big government is over.”

Before the presidential election that year, the GOP Congress wrestled a campaign-mode Clinton into signing a sweeping welfare reform bill that was despised by the base of Clinton’s own party, and which sent responsibility for welfare programs back to the states while limiting how long recipients could remain on the dole.

Nine years later, Republicans control both Congress and the White House. But the era of big government is returning with a vengeance.

Heritage Foundation budget analyst Brian M. Riedl has factored projected Katrina spending into Congressional Budget Office data and discovered that in fiscal 2006, the federal government will spend $23,638 per household. Riedl told me that—even after adjusting for inflation—such an amount would be the most money the federal government has spent per household since World War II. Worse, $3,796 of next year’s per-household federal spending will be borrowed money.

Even as many American families—practicing their own fiscal discipline—will refrain from running up new debt next year, an all-Republican federal government is preparing to charge $3,796 in their name.

Without factoring in any future recession or any future natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, Riedl calculates that federal spending will grow to $34,484 per household by fiscal 2015, with the government borrowing $6,958 per household that year.

A large chunk of this increased federal spending will come in the Medicare program, which will jump from $335 billion in fiscal 2005 to $785 billion in fiscal 2015. That increase will be buoyed by the new Medicare prescription drug entitlement that President Bush pushed through the Republican Congress in 2003 and which is scheduled to come online next year. Comptroller General David Walker told the Senate Budget Committee in February that over the next 75 years, this drug plan alone adds $8.1 trillion in unfunded liabilities to the government’s ledgers.

Yet, the most dramatic thing that Mike Pence and the “small government” Republican Study Committee suggested in their “Operation Offset” announced last week was that Congress save $30.8 billion to help offset the costs of Katrina by delaying the start of the drug plan for just one year.

Pence and his courageous RSC colleagues deserve a medal of political valor for putting the drug plan back on the table. But it should not be delayed merely one year, it should be permanently cancelled.

As for their intra-party adversaries, Fred Barnes wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2003: “Big-government conservatives are favorably disposed toward what neoconservative Irving Kristol has called a ‘conservative welfare state.’” Such a disposition puts them on the wrong side of history, and will, if their vision is followed, put America smack in the path of a fiscal storm that will make the one-time relief spending on this year’s hurricanes look like a summer breeze.