“We have to get rid of Big Government,” said a friend of mine recently, as if it was obvious. I looked around the table and saw only nodding heads.
So I asked my friend: What exactly do you want to get rid of? Social Security? Oh no, she said.
Medicare? No. Medicaid? No. The Children’s Health Insurance Program? No. The Defense Department? No.
Then you don’t want to get rid of Big Government.
Of course, that’s not what she meant. When she said “Big Government,” she wasn’t talking about those programs.
She was talking about Obamacare, which will account for 3 percent of the federal budget in the coming decade. She was talking about food stamps, which comprise another 2 percent of the budget. She was talking about welfare, which takes up a whopping 0.4 percent.
I hope she wasn’t talking about the Department of Education, but even if she was, its budget is roughly the same as the amount allocated to food stamps.
So anyone who thinks they can “get rid of Big Government” by attacking these programs is either uninformed, lying, or very bad at math.
It’s exactly this kind of misunderstanding that allows politicians to foist their radical agendas on an unwilling public.
Witness the “sequester” debate. Why is the government planning to cut its spending by $1 trillion over the next decade, starting with an $85 billion cut to this year’s budget that takes effect on March 1? Because people are somehow under the impression that it has grown too big.
It’s hard to square that belief with this week’s report from the Congressional Budget Office. It shows the size of our federal government relative to the overall economy, and believe it or not, it’s been shrinking for many years!
This year, the federal government will spend 22 percent of our nation’s income, the same as it did in 1981. In fact, throughout most of Ronald Reagan’s two terms in office, federal spending was higher, as a percent of our nation’s income, than it is today.
It wasn’t until Bill Clinton came into office that our government made a consistent effort to shrink the size of government. Remember Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union? “The era of big government is over.” It sure was. By the end of his term, the federal government spent less money, relative to the size of the overall economy, than at any time since the mid-1960s.
George W. Bush reversed that trend, but even Bush’s government paled in comparison to Reagan’s. In 2007, federal spending was 19.7 percent of our nation’s income, a far cry from the peak of 23.5 percent in 1983.
That’s a quarter of a century during which our federal government was smaller than it used to be.
That ended with the Great Recession, of course. When Bush left office, he handed over the reins to 24.4 percent of our nation’s spending.
And that’s why the sequester is a misguided attempt to fix an illusory problem. The federal government has not gotten bigger in the last three decades, and it’s only getting smaller.
There is one part of the budget that’s been growing, however, and that’s health care. As medical costs grow faster than inflation, so do the budgets of Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP. If you want to slow the long-term growth of the government, that’s the problem you have to solve.
But don’t take it out on innocent programs that have nothing to do with the budget deficit and even less to do with so-called “Big Government.”
This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.