TCS Daily

When Will the Era of Big Government Really Be Over?

By Christopher Cox - February 4, 2004 12:00 AM

Editor's note: What follows is the text of a Speech recently delivered by U.S. Rep. Christopher Cox Chairman, House Policy Committee, and Chairman, House Homeland Security Committee at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
The title of my speech is an allusion to the famous passage in President Clinton's 1996 State of the Union address. We all remember that he said -- right on the heels of his wife's attempt to have the federal government take over responsibility for 1/6 of the nation's economy: "The era of big government is over."

That line recalls similar sentiments expressed by such earlier conservative presidents as Ronald Reagan, Calvin Coolidge, and Abraham Lincoln -- with the difference being that the latter three actually meant it.

But how many of you remember not just Clinton's famous line, but the entire passage, in proper context? It went as follows:

"We know big government does not have all the answers.

"We know there's not a program for every problem.

"We have worked to give the American people a smaller, less bureaucratic government in Washington.

"And we have to give the American people one that lives within its means.

"The era of big government is over."

I remember that moment vividly. I was, of course, sitting in the House chamber, about 20 feet from the President, when he spoke those words. He was reading from the TelePrompter, and his line of sight over the Plexiglas extended directly to my reserved place at the Leadership table, where I was seated as Chairman of the House Policy Committee.

Because Bill Clinton was very comfortable using the TelePrompter, he routinely made eye contact with the Members sitting in the chamber. He looked me directly in the eye, and at that moment, I could see that he was enormously satisfied -- presumably, with himself, for having the audacity to say this.

Yet in retrospect, when Bill Clinton declared, "the era of big government is over," he was right. For now, we are living in the era of really big government.

It's the elephant in the conservative living room no one wants to talk about.

Not everyone sees the elephant ... although everyone here seems to have 20-20 vision. But not even everyone who can see it is entirely convinced it's really an elephant at all. (Maybe it's just a Great Dane with a gland problem. Just a temporary thing ... he'll get better!)

Others see the elephant, but they deny it: Maybe it's a hologram or something. After all, how could that great big elephant get into our living room?

And just how big is this elephant?

Well, assuming I keep to the schedule this morning, the federal government will spend more than $100 million just in the time that I'm speaking to you.

The growth of government in modern history has been astounding. In 1952, the year I was born (which we all agree was not very long ago), Federal spending was a quaint $68 billion, compared to over $2 trillion today. And it was that high only because the United States had just gone to war in Korea.

When my oldest child was born in 1993, federal spending was $1.4 trillion. In just one generation, the size of the federal government had increased more than 20-fold. We blew by the $2 trillion mark in 2002, and we haven't even taken our foot off the accelerator.

Now that's a big elephant.

Some nominal Republicans are delighted to accept him. We did, after all, put up that big tent, and we can hardly blame him for coming. (And isn't it nice having all those free peanuts that come with him!)

Others are less enthusiastic, but understanding. "Well, an elephant's really not all that bad." "We can get used to him."

And then ... there's the rest of us.

We're past the point where we can make excuses for that big government elephant in the living room. He's taken over our living space, contributing nothing to the family ... and, as Ronald Reagan knew, posing a threat to our freedoms.

President Reagan, my first boss in Washington, said it best in his 1989 farewell address:

"Man is not free unless government is limited.

"There's a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts."

President Reagan knew this fundamental truth: big government is incompatible with freedom. There's a reason that fiscal restraint is a traditionally conservative value. Big government requires big spending, and therefore, a comfort level in taking and using the fruits of other people's labor. It's a comfort level found in socialism, not conservatism.

So it was with great sadness that I watched over the past few months as the lion's share of government spending was rolled up into one, giant omnibus spending bill that, as just one example of its extravagance, added so many billions to the Department of Education that we will now spend $200 a year for every man, woman, and child in the United States, filtered through Washington, D.C., to fund a state and local function.

Reason enough not to vote for it. But I did not vote for it -- indeed, I could not -- for reasons beyond the wastefulness. It represented government expansion too egregious, too contrary to the conservative principles on which our country was founded.

Two years ago, a few short months after the 9-11 attacks, I spoke before CPAC at the Ronald Reagan banquet. We'd just come through a vicious attack on our nation. As horrifying as it was, it was a visible assault, an attack from without. We knew then how to mount a defense against a foreign enemy. We would not give in to terror.

At the time, Osama bin Laden boasted: "I tell you, freedom and human rights in America are doomed."

He was wrong then, and he is wrong now. We will not cede this nation to tyranny, but neither should we cede it to the burdens of big government.

We've got to acknowledge that unlike the hideous face of terrorism, big government is an attractive seductress. It is sometimes enticing to our citizenry and even our own movement. And it can dress itself in the robes of important goals we hold dear, such as national defense and homeland security.

Of course, as Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, it gives me great pride and encouragement to see how far we've come after 9-11. We have made enormous strides in addressing these new terrorist threats to our country.

But I also know that every tax dollar spent on non-essential functions of government is, in these times, doubly squandered.

Monies given to National Public Radio or the National Endowment for the Arts cannot go toward our national defense.

Recall that on 9-11, Congress was forced to scramble for emergency funds to defend our own soil. That moment was a wake up call. Our government -- wealthy beyond comprehension -- had earmarked a shocking pittance from its overflowing coffers to protect the very citizens who produced that wealth.

During JFK's presidency, military spending constituted 50% of the federal budget. By the end of the Gulf war in 1991, it had declined in actual dollars by $61.8 billion -- to a mere 13% of the federal budget. Thirteen percent. That's less than a decent restaurant gratuity.

And still the defense budget continued to decline throughout the 90's as all other spending went up. But we should not be surprised.

Even as the rubble of the World Trade Center and Pentagon still smoldered, there were those already wrapping themselves in the kryptonite cloak of September 11 to justify ever more government spending that had nothing to do with national security.

September 11th was, for some, a marketing ploy -- a convenient peg on which to hang the perennial ever-expanding wish lists. Wish lists that, in too many cases, had nothing to do with the proper function of the federal government.

The truth is: rapid, unsustainable increases in non-defense spending threaten our ability to protect American citizens, and to respond to future threats. Period. And that's precisely what's happening now -- so long as neither the Congress nor the president will say no.

At around this time in his presidency, Ronald Reagan had vetoed 22 spending bills. President Bush has vetoed not a single spending bill. During his first term President Reagan vetoed 39 bills. Through three years of his first term, President Bush has not vetoed any bills at all.

You'd have to go back to James Garfield in 1881 to find a president who did not veto a single bill -- and of course Garfield was shot after he had served only four months in office.

Don't misunderstand -- President Bush has shown a spine of steel, worthy of Mount Rushmore, in cutting taxes every year he's been in office. And when Congress has sent him worthy bills, he has signed them ... including the long-awaited ban on partial birth abortion. His leadership has increased the security of this country. We cannot over-emphasize the enormous good that was done in the liberation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nothing can diminish those achievements. At the same time, conservatives must come together to defend our core values. All relationships -- if they are to be meaningful -- require honesty and conviction as well as congeniality.

This is not being contentious; it is being mature. We do our families and ourselves no favors by ignoring the big government elephant in the living room.

This failure to control the growth of government cannot be laid at any one person's feet. To be fair, the only president to preside over an actual decrease in real domestic discretionary spending during the entire course of his presidency was Ronald Reagan. And he's a pretty hard act to follow.

And it is, of course, true that our current lack of conservative housekeeping comes after an eight-year binge of no presidential restraint of ANY sort. I guess, after that, people don't notice so much the mess around the house that an elephant makes.

But it's high time we get back to pruning back the waste of government. It can be done. We did it in 1995, the first year of the Republican House majority. And here's how I propose we do it now:

First, we get specific about the goal. We go back to using the right words: limited government. We don't just want fiscal restraint for the sake of itself; we want its result: smaller government.

Next, we confirm our judges. We commit to taking seriously the constraints on federal power that the Framers placed in the Constitution to protect our liberties. Nothing is more important to that objective than ensuring the integrity of the third branch of government, our judiciary.

Third, we need to stop looking for 218 conservative votes in the House and 60 conservative votes in the Senate. That's a cop-out. We have conservatives in the Leadership of the House, the Senate, and the White House. We need to start following a veto strategy that requires only one-third of the Congress, and the President, working together to control spending. If we know what we want, and stick to our guns, we have the power to succeed.

To this end, I am organizing 145 of my colleagues -- one-third plus one of the House -- to sign a pledge to President Bush that we will vote to sustain any veto he casts to control spending. He will know he has our support and backing.

Fourth, we need to amend the Constitution to control spending. The Spending Control Amendment that I will soon introduce is modeled on California's constitutional spending limit -- approved with a 75%-25% popular vote in 1979. (The 1990 repeal of the California limit led to runaway spending and, ultimately, the Davis recall.)

Colorado's similar 1992 constitutional spending limit (which caps tax revenue at the prior year's level, adjusted for inflation and population growth, and refunds surpluses) is a huge success; recent polling shows 75% support.

The Spending Control Amendment will limit spending increases to the prior year's level, plus inflation and population growth. Following the model of the Balanced Budget Amendment, additional spending would require a 3/5 vote in Congress.

Fifth, even before we complete the process of amending the Constitution, we need to enact legislation to put enforcement teeth in our budget process. The budget should be an enforceable law, not a non-binding resolution. To enforce budget limits, a 3/5 supermajority would be needed to exceed budget caps. And the president would be given authority for line item reduction, to cut back spending to levels enacted in the budget.

And if Congress and the President can't agree on spending within the legal timeframe, an Automatic Continuing Resolution would freeze spending at current levels for the next year.

Sixth and finally, we need to institute an annual CPAC Survivor competition. Once a year, right about this time, you get to vote and throw one lawmaker off the island.

That should get things started.

I will need your help. You can help right now when you return to your homes by letting your elected officials know that you back them on this. Let them know that reining in the government is a serious priority. Remind them of the overarching commitment to individual liberty that was the genius of the American Revolution.

I believe we can return to the principles laid out for us by our Founding Fathers. I believe we can get the big government elephant out of the living room.

The Era of Big Government will really be over when our president -- whoever he or she may be --is one day in the future delivering the State of the Union address.

The president surveys the gathered body of House and Senate ... then turns to the minority side on the left of the chamber, which now occupies only about fours rows. He looks past the TelePrompter, not needing to see the words, as they've been written on his heart since he was elected.

He levels a gaze at the big-spending liberal ... and, with a voice rich with resolve and assurance, says:

"We know big government does not have all the answers. It really doesn't even have many answers at all. Not good ones, anyway.

"We know there's not a program for every problem. And we've concluded, after all these years, that that's a really good thing.

"So from now on, the game plan is to stick with what the Founding Fathers wanted us to do.

"Not surprisingly, those are the very things we've been good at all along.

"Good evening ... and God bless America."

You can find more information from Rep. Cox's office here.


TCS Daily Archives