Back in 1978, Howard Jarvis promoted a California initiative known as Proposition 13, a measure to cap property taxes. While there were arguments that this was needed to protect retirees living on a fixed income 1, it also had a strong anti-government sentiment.
Three years later, Ronald Reagan used his inaugural address to claim “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” And a rhetorical battle against government of all types was launched and continues to this day.
In 2001, Grover Norquist made this famous statement: “I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
Even Democrats get in on the act. During the Clinton administration, Vice President Gore was put in charge of a commission to re-engineer government to little effect. In his 1996 State of the Union speech, Bill Clinton said “The era of big government is over.”
The past two decades have shown the limitations of this rhetoric. Fighting the War on Terror, dealing with the 2008 housing and banking meltdown, responding to a once-in-a-century pandemic and subsequent economic disruption, and reacting to natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, and wildfires all require government resources. Nobody talks of drowning the government in the bathtub in the midst of calamity.
Then the calamity lessens and the stories start up about people who fraudulently milked the system. Maybe it was post-hurricane price gouging. Or 47 people charged with taking $250 million from a pandemic program meant to feed children. Or prisoners who received stimulus checks. See, the critics claim, government cannot be trusted and is full of waste, fraud, and abuse.
This week, the Congressional Republicans released their Commitment to America. It’s not a policy proposal per se, but a set of priorities that they will talk about during this election cycle. They want to “fight inflation and lower the cost of living”. Their very first words underneath that heading are “curb wasteful government spending.” Here in Colorado, Republican Gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl says that she wants to eliminate the state’s income tax over the course of the next several years. When asked by an interviewer how she could do this without bankrupting the state, she said, “We also need to affect fraud and waste, there’s plenty of that to go around, and some of the Polis pork that he’s added in as governor.”
It goes without saying that one person’s Waste, Fraud, and Abuse is another person’s desperately needed program. Even more significantly, these claims of wasteful government spending combined with intransigence by many lawmakers keep us from the proactive solutions that could really make a difference.2
Last week the Treasury Department released a report on the impact of the Child Tax Credit. It reports that $1.1 Billion went to 1.5 million taxpayers who didn’t qualify. [Insert anti-government outrage here.] But the report goes on to say that $3.7 Billion in payments to 4.1 million taxpayers were not made. Guess which of those sentences the anti-fraudsters are most concerned about!
The Drown the Government crowd has never seen an appropriation they think is legitimate. One hears over and over about the 87,000 “jackbooted thugs” the IRS will have because of the IRA and how they will come after average citizens.3 As Catherine Rampell explained last month in the Washington Post, there are real needs at the IRS. Her story included this picture.
This is the cafeteria in the IRS building. All the tables contain files awaiting processing from the April 2022 filing deadline. There has long been a lack of funding for the IRS relative to the need.
Here’s another example. We have a lack of meat inspectors. This story from 2017, defines the problem. As one former USDA inspector explained: “They’ve got what I would call an ‘artificial personnel ceiling’ because of the budget,” he said. “And so, they can only hire so many people – and they’ve already reached their limit, even though they have this huge vacancy.” What happens when these positions are underfunded? We wait for something to happen so we can marshal resources to react to the latest salmonella outbreak instead of trying to keep our food disease-free.
Here’s a third example related to recent news. We don’t have enough judges to hear asylum cases. Because of commitments to international law, we accept immigrants who declare asylum and then review their cases for legitimacy. It currently takes up to a year for that hearing. The Biden administration adopted a rule last year to let non-judge officers handle the preliminary review. But we clearly need more immigration courts and more judges. A Pew report from 2019 showed that 65% of those surveyed favored hiring more judges. So why hasn’t it happened?
We don’t address these issues because it’s easier to rail against government spending in campaign brochures or podcasts or Fox News that to actually solve the problem. Being committed to governing would mean figuring out how to provide budgetary support for potential solutions. Doing the work of governing requires the hard tradeoffs between various government outlays (defense spending) or revenue sources (limited tax increases, elimination of tax incentives).
If all you want to do is campaign, there is no need for hard work. Just yell Waste, Fraud, and Abuse regularly at campaign events. Talk about the bloated government in your brochures. Highlight the fraud that shows up after we get the accounting from disaster relief as an illustration of Big Government.4
The reality is that our fix-it-after-the-fact approach to government is far less effective — and far more prone to waste, fraud, and abuse — than if we took the responsibility of government seriously.
1 A sentiment that I, as a retiree on a fixed income, appreciate.
2 For years, deficit hawks have insisted on pay-fors in budget bills. But when the disaster comes, that gets funded in a supplemental.
3 Occasionally, they add “and take your guns” as if that’s not the task of ATF.
4 For all those people who like to complain about government by invoking the local DMV (which is usually a state function), they never demand increased budgets to hire more DMV workers.