As we read and hear the accusations and counter-accusations, the insults and counter-insults — things like the Democrats accusing the Republicans of coming unhinged, and the Republicans accusing the Democrats of uncompromising arrogance — it’s important to acknowledge almost none of what politicians say about the so-called government shutdown matters.
Even if significant swaths of the government were to shut down, which will not happen, it would be only temporary. The long-term trajectory of government spending and debt has been and likely will continue to be up.
This is the 17th so-called government shutdown since the 1970s, and most people would agree the government is bigger, more intrusive, and more abusive than it’s been in living memory. See Obamacare. See No Child Left Behind. See NSA spying. See the 14,000 pages of regulations and 155 rules — and counting — of the Dodd-Frank law. See the record number of Americans in the federal and state prison systems. See the 40 years of Drug War failure. See the rise of warrior cops. See the nearly 79,000 pages of federal regulations. See the IRS and the nearly 74,000 pages of U.S. tax code.
It’s a bipartisan problem, as economist Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University reminds us: “Congress has the constitutional prerogative to control spending, and it does so through the debt ceiling, which sets the allowable limit of federal government borrowing. The first chart shows all the times that the debt limit has been raised since 1980, which includes 18 times under Ronald Reagan, four times under Bill Clinton, and seven times under George W. Bush. Most recently, President Obama raised the debt limit for his fifth time, to $16.69 trillion, $305 billion above the previous statutory limit, which is exponentially greater than when it first reached $1 trillion about 30 years ago in 1982.”
It’s also apparently a split-personality problem. Here’s then-Senator Barack Obama on raising the government’s debt ceiling during a floor speech he gave in 2006: “The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. Government can’t pay its own bills. … Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that ‘the buck stops here.’ Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better.”
Here’s Obama barely two weeks ago in a speech before the Business Roundtable: “Now, this debt ceiling — I just want to remind people in case you haven’t been keeping up — raising the debt ceiling, which has been done over a hundred times, does not increase our debt; it does not somehow promote profligacy. All it does is it says you got to pay the bills that you’ve already racked up, Congress. It’s a basic function of making sure that the full faith and credit of the United States is preserved.”
Apparently the final destination of “the buck” Obama talked about in 2006 moved to Capitol Hill when he moved into the White House.
When Republican George W. Bush controlled the White House before Obama took office — a stint that included several years in which the House and Senate were also under the control of supposedly stingy Republicans — we saw the biggest spending binge since the launch of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs of the 1960s.
This shutdown isn’t a fight about the direction of government. It’s about the speed of government growth. Neither of the major political parties shows any evidence of really wanting to shrink government, because that would reduce their own power.
To those who might object that Republicans are trying to end Obamacare, thus reducing government’s power, remember two things: (1) the Republican establishment leaders did not want a shutdown over ending Obamacare, and (2) Obamacare was modeled on Romneycare in Massachusetts. Mitt Romney, of course, was the Republican governor of Massachusetts who lost to Obama in the 2012 presidential election.
We can bet there’d be much less agitation against Obamacare in Republican Party ranks if Romney had defeated Obama.
Steve Stanek (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute.