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The Right's Real Fear: People Will Like The Spending

Harold Pollack is a public health policy researcher at the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration, where he is faculty chair of the Center for Health Administration Studies. He is a regular contributor to The Treatment.

For years, I have electronically subscribed to the Wall Street Journal. A simple accompanying pleasure is that I never click the “opinion” tab. The wicked and simple inner child of an otherwise great paper therefore never enters my world. Today, unfortunately, our paper man accidentally dropped off the Journal in place of the Times. I succumbed to morbid curiosity, and read today’s lead editorial, “The real stimulus burden.”

I will spare you the usual trash talk. (“The three Republican amigos are praising themselves for cutting spending in the House bill by some $100 billion, but this is tinkering around the Beltway edges.” Is there a more inside-the-beltway way to botch this tired metaphor?) I will glide past the humorous understatement (“We aren’t deficit scolds.”) Rather than dwell on the various character defects, I will reach across the aisle to note two accurate observations in that brief essay.

First, they accuse Democrats of spending a lot of money. Second, they reveal Democrats' secret plan to spend this money on progressive programs Americans will like. As they report,

The Republican staff of the House Budget Committee has calculated what happens to future spending if Congress continues to fund 19 of the most politically untouchable programs at their new stimulus levels. The list of 19 includes Pell Grants, Head Start money for poor kids, nutrition programs for seniors, Medicaid, special education, food stamps and cancer research at the National Institutes of Health, among others. Across a 10-year period through 2019, these 19 programs alone would increase federal outlays and tax entitlements by $1.59 trillion.

As informative policy analysis, it’s silly to lump together 19 programs of such vastly different size and budgetary challenge. If one calculates what will happen if Congress continues to fund the White House coffee machine and Medicaid at projected levels, things get pretty costly. Medicaid presents a completely different challenge from those arising from specifically budgeted and much smaller programs such as NIH cancer research. By the way, we spend too little on Pell Grants, which have lagged badly in recent years.

Still, give the editors their due. That $1.59 trillion is a lot of money. We have some real choices to make.

But it seems to me that the American people made them last November.

Tax cuts tilted to the wealthy and (unspecified) spending restrains on social programs were the centerpiece of Senator McCain’s economic plan. Projecting out to 2019, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center calculated that Senator McCain’s program added about $1.3 trillion more to the federal deficit than did the competing Obama plan. The electorate apparently decided that Pell Grants, Head Start money for poor kids, nutrition programs for seniors, Medicaid, special education, food stamps and NIH cancer research were more valuable than another round of regressive tax cuts. These programs are “politically untouchable” because millions of people like them.

Republicans express rhetorical fear that the Democrats have passed a “Porkulus” bill. Their real fear is the opposite: that stimulus provides an opportunity for Democrats to enact appealing measures that will be politically painful to reverse. They are right to worry. Once we start subsidizing COBRA benefits and support other people in pain, it will be difficult, politically and morally, to shut things off. As House Republican staffers put it:

…[P]rovisions in H.R. 1 appear to have artificial funding cliffs: temporary spending increases that lead to abrupt, and sharp, spending reductions after 2 years. Due to immense pressure that will mount to maintain the H.R. 1 funding levels in these programs, the reductions are highly unlikely to occur.

Of course we’ve heard all this before. This is exactly what President Bush did in pushing through deep tax cuts seven years ago. I hate to make this analogy, since those tax cuts were disastrous. Yet it’s important to note that these tax cuts were disastrous because they were bad policy, not because Bush failed to compromise with Democrats. There is a healthy accountability that comes with an ascendant president enacting his agenda. Considering that partisan Republicans have run economic and fiscal policy into the ditch, it is only proper for Democrats to grab the wheel and follow a different course.

I wish the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) were more ambitious and more creative. Yet as Michael Cohen points out, on the whole this is a big progressive victory. If ARRA succeeds, an expanded, activist government will indeed be untouchable. If the American electorate does not value what ARRA brings, we will have a Republican president sometime soon.

If the Wall Street Journals editors really believe their boastful rhetoric, they should welcome this clear test. 

--Harold Pollack