In politics, inertia always wins

Ryan Young Fellow, Competitive Enterprise Institute
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Once upon a time, GOP politicians wanted $100 billion in spending cuts. As Reason‘s Peter Suderman points out, “the GOP’s budget cut promises [went] from $100 billion to $61 billion and then resulted in a deal party leaders claimed cut $38 billion but really cut just $14 billion . . . The Congressional Budget Office now says the deal will reduce the budget deficit by just $353 million.”

That $353 million represents about 0.02 percent of this year’s $1.6 trillion budget deficit.

I rarely write in anger. But this is one of those times. Apologies in advance.

I write a lot more about policy than about politics, in part because I don’t play for either of Washington’s two teams. But the iron law of politics is that inertia always wins. Wednesday’s CBO numbers are only the latest proof. For further evidence, let’s take a look at each of the parties in turn.

Most Democratic politicians are reliable across-the-board defenders of the status quo. Whatever the policy is, keep it going. Maybe tinker at the margins a bit. But no more than that. The boat must not be rocked.

President Bush grew spending faster than any president since Lyndon Johnson. By the end of his presidency, torrid government growth was the new norm. President Obama has continued Bush’s spending policy to a tee. Rapid spending growth was established policy. Therefore it must continue.

Bush tried fiscal stimulus twice during his presidency. It didn’t work either time. In late 2008 and early 2009, he and Obama publicly collaborated on a third stimulus package. That didn’t work, either. But it didn’t matter. Stimulus is established policy. Therefore it must continue.

With Medicare Part D, Bush installed the largest expansion of government’s role in health care in 40 years. Obama’s health care policies differ from Bush’s in degree, but not in kind. Both parties want government to have an active and growing presence in the health care sector.

Bush started two wars abroad. Obama campaigned on ending them. For me, this was a source of early optimism about his presidency. What he actually did was send a few more troops into Afghanistan, take a few out of Iraq, and invade Libya for good measure.

Obama quickly gave in to inertia. Tinker at the margins of the Bush doctrine. But don’t change the fundamental concept of the U.S. military as a nation-builder. It doesn’t matter that establishing a liberal democracy is a bottom-up process that comes from within. Top-down nation-building from outside is established policy. Therefore it must continue.

Bush was deeply unpopular by the end of his presidency. The stable of Democratic candidates in 2008 knew that. All they had to do to win was run against Bush. Obama won the nomination, but it really didn’t matter who came out on top. The GOP lost 2008 before the campaign even began.

It really was an opportunity for change. But Democrats suffer from an innate conservatism. People call them progressives. But that’s a misnomer. Progressives worthy of the name would progress away from the other party’s policies, not conserve them. When it comes to conserving the status quo, Democrats are more conservative than Ann Coulter.

Congressional Republicans are no different. A few of them talk a good economic game if one is willing to overlook their intolerant social conservatism, which I’m not. But actions speak louder than words. And just like Democrats, their actions say that the status quo shall forever reign.

GOP leaders are claiming victory because they made a deal to cut two dollars out of every ten thousand from the budget deficit. This is not a landmark deal. It is a joke. And it isn’t funny anymore.

Besides their short-sightedness, congressional Republicans are also followers, not leaders. President Bush had a Republican majority in Congress for six of his eight years in office. That Congress followed him in lockstep on everything from transferring billions of dollars from taxpayers to alternative energy companies, to giving billions more taxpayer dollars to farmers, to the PATRIOT Act, to his administration’s many other excesses.

Partisan loyalty may be a good way to win elections and make friends in Washington, but it is no recipe for fiscal discipline. As P.J. O’Rourke wrote in 1999’s Eat the Rich, “Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.”

Actually, both parties are proving it. When it comes to policies actually enacted, the parties are two peas in a pod. Anyone who believes otherwise is either clouded by partisanship, or else has not actually compared Bush and Obama administration policies.

If I have a preferred party alignment, it would be divided government. I don’t much care which party runs the White House or Congress. But I would rather that one party not run them both. Gridlock is good. It keeps each party’s worst impulses in check.

That’s why I had some guarded optimism about 2010’s election results. But as it always does, inertia is overcoming all genuine efforts at reform. The hard-fought 0.02 percent deficit reduction deal is but one piece of evidence to add to a very large pile.

Ryan Young is an economic analyst based in Washington, D.C.