In the name of “Compassionate Conservatism,” the Bush administration is now pressing the Republican-controlled Congress to create the largest new government program in 40 years—a prescription-drug entitlement that will cost an estimated $400 billion over five years. This is only the latest of President George W. Bush’s massive additions to the federal government, and the costs will be political as well as fiscal.
Bush’s advocacy of increased spending on government schools and federal education programs, efforts to ameliorate AIDS in Africa, and the mendacity of tax “rebates” for those who pay no income tax (honest men call this scheme “income redistribution”) has some advocates of limited government complaining that the president is sacrificing conservative principles for political expediency. But this understates the hazards of the administration’s profligacy. While Bush’s largesse arguably aids his re-election efforts, the long-term political costs for the Grand Old Party will rival the fiscal and economic costs of our 43rd president’s compassion.
The starting point of this summer’s Medicare prescription-drug debate should cause concern for Republicans with any political memory. The drug bill that hit the Senate floor was the offspring of a deal between President Bush and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the “liberal lion” of the U.S. Senate. This seems an odd partner for a Republican president to choose. Kennedy, after all, is the most straightforward advocate in Washington of a universal health-care system mandated and funded by the federal government. Bush and the Republican Party believe this would be a disaster.
But the White House appears to believe that it can get political mileage out of Rose-Garden signing ceremonies with Ted Kennedy in attendance. We’ve seen this play before, with Bush’s premiere policy initiative: the “No Child Left Behind Act.”
In the eyes of conservative education reformers, policy-wise, this bill started off as a bad one with some good elements and ended up a disaster. From a fiscal perspective, it was a disaster from the start. Politically, it was no better. But Bush had campaigned as “The Education President,” and he needed a bill to live up to that reputation. Congressional Republicans gave his education bill a top spot on the agenda, with the bills in the two chambers garnering the numbers H.R. 1 and S.1 in the 107th Congress. (In the 108th Congress, those numbers adorn the prescription-drug bills.)
In the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, liberal Democrat George Miller (Calif.), the ranking member, effectively took control of the bill markup. This shouldn’t have been surprising—drafting a bill on expanding the federal role in education is moving the ball onto the Democrats’ turf. The committee, effectively under Democratic control, stripped out Bush’s school-choice provisions, added to the costs, and passed it with a five-year cost of $132 billion. It grew to $135 billion before Capitol Hill was done.
On Jan. 8, 2002, Bush signed his prized education bill into law with a grinning Kennedy and Miller over his right shoulder. A week later, at a rally in Boston, Bush said, “I told the folks at a coffee shop in Crawford, Texas that Ted Kennedy was all right. They nearly fell out.” Those shocked folks at the Crawford diner very likely had their suspicions confirmed just a few weeks later, when Kennedy and Miller launched an attack on Bush for not providing even more money in his education budget. “The President’s budget deals a severe blow to our nation’s schools,” Kennedy said in a March press release.
In October, as the midterm elections approached, Kennedy smacked around Bush and the GOP a little more. “Today, the President and the Republican leaders in Congress are cutting funding for our schools,” Kennedy said. Since Republicans took over Congress, Department of Education funding has risen by 132 percent. The White House seems to hope it can feed the liberal lion to keep him quiet. The story of the education bill should have shown that Republicans can never spend enough to satisfy Kennedy or even to keep him from attacking them.
The attempt to disarm the Left by co-opting their issues fails in the end. The Left can move infinitely to the Left—and it does. Sure enough, Kennedy has called this massive new drug entitlement “a down-payment”—presumably on increasingly socialized health care.
Virginia Sen. George Allen, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, was gloating last week that GOP passage of the drug plan would help Republicans in the 2004 Senate elections. Passing the new entitlement “shows Republicans in leadership, taking action that is actually going to have a positive aspect in people’s lives,” Allen told the Hill newspaper. “It’ll be something tangible that people, when they go vote in ’04, will say, ‘Republicans got this done.’”
But bringing up liberal legislation puts conservative lawmakers in a dilemma. They either need to betray their president and invite attacks of extremism (“he’s too far right for the president”), or betray their principles. Conservative Senators faced a stark example of this dilemma in June, in the aftermath of Bush’s tax cut. Liberals in the media and on the Hill raised a cry about the families “left out” of the child tax credit expansion—that is, those with no income-tax liability would not benefit from immediately raising the credit from $600 per child to $1000.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) brought up a bill to extend the “tax credit” to those “left out.” This is manifestly not a tax-cut question but a question of converting the IRS into a welfare agency. Almost all Republicans in Washington understood this was bad policy on many levels. But when White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was asked about it, he instructed the Republicans in Congress, “Pass it!” President Bush issued a statement to same effect.
The bill the Senate passed would cost $10 billion, effectively involve the IRS in handing out welfare checks, and further complicate the tax code. But Republicans did not want to repudiate their president or appear outside the mainstream.Oklahoma’s two senators, however, refused to go along. Don Nickles (R) and Jim Inhofe (R) cast the two lonely “no” votes on the bill. Accordingly, they got abused in letters to the editor and on radio shows for casting a vote “against the poor.” The Tulsa World led off an article a couple of days later with a quote from state Democratic Chairman Jay Parmley: “Our senators have said tax cuts will spur the economy. But the only spurs I’ve seen are on the back of Don Nickles’ and Jim Inhofe’s boots as they stick it to working families.” The White House handed Parmley and Oklahoma’s Democrats this line of attack by pushing a bill they saw as bad policy but good politics. Inhofe and Nickles probably disagree on the politics part.
Mitigating the harm of their dilemma, neither of the Sooner senators faces a tough re-election bid. Unfortunately, Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.)—who oppose the Medicare bill in the House—don’t have that sort of political safety. DeMint is running to oust Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) or replace him if he should retire. Burr is trying to take Sen. John Edwards’s (D) seat. Both races will be tough. DeMint and Burr could not swallow the pragmatic arguments Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) tried to feed them. Burr repelled an overture by White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, and Karl Rove couldn’t win DeMint over to the House bill. So both men cast “no” votes, positioning themselves to the right of DeLay and allowing their Democratic opponents to attack them for hating seniors.
Not only does the prescription drug issue—by harming two promising Southern candidates—make it harder for the GOP to hold onto its majority, it makes a GOP majority less meaningful to conservatives. The more the White House forces uncomfortable votes like this, the less conservatives like Burr and DeMint are attracted to running for Senate. Fewer Burrs and DeMints means more Lincoln Chafees and Arlen Specters.
Bush in 2001 and 2002 supported Congress’s reversal of the 1996 “Freedom to Farm Act,” which began the process of weaning farmers off subsidies. The 2002 “Farm Security Act” has an estimated five-year cost of $40 billion. Bringing farmers back onto the dole shrinks the constituency for limited government and tax cuts. Public employees have always opposed tax cuts for the same reason an AT&T employee wouldn’t want to see his firm’s revenues drop. When farmers’ revenue comes increasingly from the U.S. Department of Agriculture compared to actual consumers, they nearly become government workers.
The education bill shows that attempts to appease the Left are futile because its appetite for spending is boundless. It ignores history and common sense to expect the likes of Ted Kennedy and John Edwards to play nice come election time because Bush gave the Left some of what it wanted.
The tax credit “fix” demonstrates that political gain from policy mistakes only goes to those who sell out their principles. Pushing bad bills on the GOP crowds out the conservatives—who support the tax cuts and conservative judges Bush wants.
Increased farm subsidies are a good example of how bad policy can increase the constituency for the welfare state and hence the Democratic Party.
The president’s compassion may help him win a second term, but it will only make the Democrats demand more and more from the GOP. If Bush keeps increasing the size of this big tent, it will soon come crashing down on itself.
Timothy P. Carney is a reporter for the Evans-Novak Political Report.