Vail Daily letter: The beasts politicians must serve
Vail, CO, Colorado
As we approach the 2010 mid-term elections, a Republican priority and primary campaign talking point will be to advance the cause of a limited, smaller federal government.
On its face, this is a desirable cause and one that moderates can embrace, although the track record of the last three Republican administrations has been poor in achieving anything in shrinking the federal budget and the federal deficit.
A close look at our national behavior over the last four decades and the challenges facing every congressperson, regardless of party, in balancing the message of smaller government with the reality of what is required for reelection paints a stark picture.
A look at federal expenditures in the 2008 fiscal year tells the common story of decades past. The vast majority of federal expenditures are consumed by mandatory entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, SCHIP and Medicaid), interest owed on our national debt and “discretionary” spending on national security. The total of these expenditures amount to roughly 84 percent of total federal expenditures in 2008.
Expenditures for the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and the Veterans Administration accounted for almost 59 percent of total expenditures.
We may not consider ourselves a war-like country, but our expenditures tell a different story, particularly when compared to the rest of the world. We can argue that we have been cast in the role of defender of freedom throughout the world, but history has already closed on the Vietnam War and something of the same verdict is likely to be passed down on the Iraq War.
But a focus on national security expenditures reveals only part of the story why a more limited, smaller federal government is a distant dream. Every congressperson faces the dual dilemmas of keeping a constituency happy and raising campaign money for reelection. Whether its a House district or Senate seat, each incumbent or challenger must make all the politically correct statements to appease the national party while doing whatever is necessary to be elected or reelected.
As an example, the 16 percent of the 2008 expenditures that was not related to entitlements, security and interest payments included farm subsidies, one of the most controversial and untouchable, annual expenditures in the federal budget.
Add up the number of House members and Senators of both parties who represent constituencies with substantial agricultural interests and you have a “fight to the death” over any proposed reductions. Depending upon the economic drivers in each district or state, there will be a constituency with money and influence to be satisfied whether it be a dominant industry or just a “bridge to nowhere” that brings job growth to the local economy.
Just as important is the need to raise money for re-election. The needs of “in territory” large employers as well as their industries are opportunistic targets for fundraising. The needs may range from a relaxation of regulatory requirements to tax credits to interpretations of anti-trust statutes.
The point here is that the beasts must be served and they are much less interested in any political party platform item (e.g., for limited government to which they may well agree philosophically) than a voting record that serves their immediate economic interests. Pleasing constituencies and raising major campaign contributions are challenges that candidates from all parties share.
To criticize these realities is to criticize democracy and free market capitalism as we know it.
There is one segment of our population that is always a ready target for reductions in public spending — the underprivileged. Republicans tend to see the “down and outers” as the unwashed, smelly drug addicts who live under bridges, sleep on city park benches or live like rates in subway culverts. Yes, there are plenty of those. Ever wonder what happened in their lives that brought them to this point? Born lazy to a welfare dependent family and probably never rose to a challenge, no doubt.
Some of them are decorated military veterans of wars past. I have had the privilege of meeting a few of them.
There are also those who are educated and skilled and have much to offer society but have been rendered unemployable because of chronic conditions that deny them the right to health insurance and the care that would allow them to be productive members of society.
Who speaks for the underprivileged? The have no political voice, no political clout, no money to make campaign contributions. They stand out only as a denied embarrassment to our way of life.
Some level of inefficient government is the price we pay for our form of democracy. Inefficient government and a limited, smaller federal government are two different subjects. Desiring a more limited and smaller federal government is a worthwhile cause.
My question is this, and imagine you are an elected congressperson. Where are the reductions to come from? National defense and homeland security? Medicare and Social Security? Reneging on our national debt interest payments to foreign countries? Disappointing your voting constituency and campaign contributors by not funding their favorite projects?
Or you can take the easy way out. Just cut funding to those who have no means or intent of hurting your chances for re-election.