The Gathering Revolt against Government Spending

This month three members of Congress have been beaten in their bids for re-election--a Republican senator from Utah, a Democratic congressman from West Virginia and a Republican-turned-Democrat senator from Pennsylvania. Their records and their curricula vitae are different. But they all have one thing in common: They are members of an Appropriations Committee.

Like most appropriators, they have based much of their careers on bringing money to their states and districts. There is an old saying on Capitol Hill that there are three parties--Democrats, Republicans and appropriators. One reason that it has been hard to hold down government spending is that appropriators of both parties have an institutional and political interest in spending.

Obey maintains that the vigorous campaign of a young Republican in his district didn't prompt his decision. But his retirement is evidence that, suddenly this year, pork is not kosher.

Their defeats are an indication that spending is not popular this year. So is the decision, shocking to many Democrats, of House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey to retire after a career of 41 years. Obey maintains that the vigorous campaign of a young Republican in his district didn't prompt his decision. But his retirement is evidence that, suddenly this year, pork is not kosher.

It has long been a maxim of political scientists that American voters are ideologically conservative and operationally liberal. That is another way of saying that they tend to oppose government spending in the abstract but tend to favor spending on particular programs. It's another explanation of why the culture of appropriators continued to thrive after the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 and during the eight years of George W. Bush's presidency.

In the past rebellions against fiscal policy have concentrated on taxes rather than spending. In the 1970s, when inflation was pushing voters into higher tax brackets, tax revolts broke out in California and spread east. Ronald Reagan's tax cuts were popular, but spending cuts did not follow. Bill Clinton's tax increases led to the Republican takeover and to tax cuts at both the federal and state levels but spending boomed under George W. Bush.

The rebellion against the fiscal policies of the Obama Democrats, in contrast, is concentrated on spending. The Tea Party movement began with Rick Santelli's rant in February 2009, long before the scheduled expiration of the Bush tax cuts in January 2011.

What we are seeing is a spontaneous rush of previously inactive citizens into political activity, a movement symbolized but not limited to the Tea Party movement, in response to the vast increases in federal spending that began with the Troubled Asset Relief Program legislation in fall 2008 and accelerated with the Obama Democrats' stimulus package, budget and health care bills.

The Tea Party folk are focusing on something real. Federal spending is rising from about 21 percent to about 25 percent of gross domestic product--a huge increase in historic terms--and the national debt is on a trajectory to double as a percentage of GDP within a decade. That is a bigger increase than anything since World War II.

Now the political scientists' maxim seems out of date. The Democrat who won the Pennsylvania 12th Congressional District special election opposed the Democrats' health care law and cap-and-trade bills. The Tea Party-loving Republican who won the Senate nomination in Kentucky jumped out to a big lead. The defeat of the three appropriators, who among them have served 76 years in Congress (and whose fathers served another 42), is the canary that stopped singing in the coal mine.

Will Republicans come forward with a bold plan to roll back government spending? The natural instinct of politicians is to avoid anything bold. The British Conservatives faced this question before the election this month. When Britain was prosperous they promised no cuts at all. When recession hit, they were skittish about proposing cuts and mostly unspecific when they did.

That may have been why they fell short on May 6 of the absolute majority they expected. Now they're in a coalition with the third-party Liberal Democrats, who proposed more cuts, and the cuts they've announced have been widely popular. Boldness seems to work where skittishness did not.

Unlike the Conservatives, Republicans have no elected party leader. But House Republicans like Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy and Peter Roskam are setting up web sites to solicit voters' proposals for spending cuts, while Paul Ryan has set out a long-term road map toward fiscal probity. Worthy first steps. I think voters are demanding a specific plan to roll back Democrats' spending. Republicans need to supply it.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Rob Lee/Creative Commons

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  • Michael Barone, a political analyst and journalist, studies politics, American government, and campaigns and elections. The principal coauthor of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), he has written many books on American politics and history. Barone is also a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

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