THERE WAS A time when GOP lawmakers called for the elimination of entire federal agencies. Today, milquetoast promises to pursue smaller government are followed by votes for ever bigger government.
As Milton Friedman noted, the true size of the state is measured by how much money it spends. Budget data show that all modern presidents, regardless of party affiliation, have increased the federal fiscal footprint--but Republican administrations have generally increased the amount spent at a faster rate than Democratic ones.
Under George W. Bush, who was elected on a platform of fiscal restraint, total federal spending increased in real terms by 53 percent. Enabled and encouraged by a Republican-led Congress, his administration adopted the politically self-serving notion that "deficits don't matter." No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and bank bailouts serve as a vivid reminder that shrinking the state doesn't stand a chance.
Even the record of Ronald Reagan, that eloquent spokesman for limited government, was disappointing. Whatever progress he made in limiting the growth of domestic programs was offset by enormous hikes in the Pentagon's budget that helped set the stage for the last 30 years of costly American military adventurism. Overall annual spending jumped 22 percent in real terms during Reagan's first term. By comparison, it grew by just 12.5 percent under Bill Clinton and 0.3 percent under Barack Obama (when giving his predecessor full credit for fiscal year 2009, as we do for all departing presidents in this exercise).
The voting record of congressional Republicans while Obama was in office is additional evidence that politics--not principles--guide the GOP. In 2011, Republicans used the fight over increasing the debt ceiling to curtail Obama's spending desires, but ever since they have joined Democrats in breaching spending caps. They attacked the rise in food stamp usage but helped keep what are essentially welfare checks flowing to wealthy farmers and landowners. They complained about the green subsidies that the Obama administration gave to now-defunct Solyndra but refused to terminate the underlying program (which, by the way, began during the Bush years). And they decried cronyism in government, unless it served friendly special interests like defense contractors and sugar moguls.
Yes, Republicans deserve credit for getting in the way of the Democrats' wildest spending schemes. But whatever motivation they had to limit...