Dissatisfaction with excessive government spending, deficits and regulation under President Obama sparked the election of a wave of Tea Party congressmen in the landmark 2010 midterm elections. But in no short order, they discovered that slowing up the Washington spending machine — much less heading it down a different road — is a herculean task.
The truth is, the federal government has been too big for a long time, and both parties are responsible for its excessive growth. Expenditures under Republican President George W. Bush increased faster than they have under Democrat Obama. Presidents and congressional majorities come and go, but the behemoth on the Potomac is a pervasive, costly and powerful constant.
But there is reason for hope. As the Washington Post noted Sunday, in 2010, the government spent $3.457 trillion, which will drop to $3.455 trillion this year. That's the first downward movement in total annual federal spending since Democrat Bill Clinton was president and Republicans controlled the House and Senate. This could be the first tiny step toward right-sizing the federal government.
To appreciate the challenge involved, it is only necessary to consider the difficulty of ending federal programs that clearly have failed to achieve their purpose. The Head Start program was begun in 1965 under President Johnson. More recently, two studies paid for by the Department of Health and Human Services concluded that the $8 billion-a-year program at best has no positive effect on the subsequent academic performance of pre-school children enrolled in the program and at worst may actually damage their learning prospects.
But whenever efforts are made in Congress to reduce or eliminate Head Start, Democrats like Obama turn to demagoguery and excoriate Republicans for being "against the children." Just this week, Obama claimed "the Republicans in Washington are trying to gut our investments in education." Federal spending will never be controlled if failed programs like Head Start remain the occasion for political demonization.
Neither can spending be controlled when the people running the government's daily operations act like their jobs entitle them to fat paychecks and benefits. Federal employees earn on average 16 percent more than comparable private sector workers, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But when House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan proposed a federal pay freeze in 2012, Democrats in Congress reacted in abject horror.
Then there is the mockery of civil service "pay for performance," as exposed recently by the Washington Examiner's Mark Flatten. He reported that six Department of Veterans Affairs health network executives got bonuses in excess of $16,000 "despite a string of patient deaths and reports of mismanagement, unsanitary conditions and unprofessional practices" in facilities under their purview. Similarly, the Examiner reported in May that the IRS handed out $92 million in bonuses to top employees between 2009 and 2013 even as the tax agency illegally harassed Tea Party, conservative and evangelical groups seeking non-profit status. The Tea Party faithful better be prepared for a long siege.