Talk of slashing government makes for great populist campaign rhetoric, but meaningful cuts have to address defense and entitlement spending, not insignificant pork or agency budgets.
The election results are in, and this time there are no surprises. As predicted, Republicans have made huge gains, capturing the House of Representatives and significantly narrowing the gap in the Senate. They have ridden the dominant nationwide political trend of dissatisfaction with the performance of government and the Democrats who have been in charge of it. Soon to be House Speaker John Boehner declared tonight that the election was "a repudiation of big government" after earlier vowing to small-government-championing Tea Party acolytes "I'll never let you down".
Several of Rep. Boehner's party colleagues attained their victory tonight promising spending cuts. Yet the fact remains that while talk of slashing government makes for great populist campaign rhetoric, if politicians from either side of the asisle want to actually make real steps toward reducing deficits and reigning in spending, some difficult choices will have to be made. After all, the types of proposed spending cuts we have been hearing are nothing more than symbolic measures with little impact.
Congressional earmarks are much-maligned as evil "pork barrel" spending. Yet they accounted for only $16.5 billion of spending last year, under 0.5% of the $3.5 trillion in the federal government's 2009 budget. Other proposed cuts heard during election are so negligible as to be laughable (ex: federal funding for the oft-beleaguered National Endowment for the Arts and National Public Radio combined are well below $200 million a year). There are most certainly programs in the federal budget that deserve to be trimmed or eliminated, but even the most aggressive approach toward them would not be enough to make a significant dent.
What then makes up the vast majority of government expenditures? Three components--defense, Social Security, and Medicare/Medicaid--accounted for over $2 trillion, roughly 62% of the federal government's 2009 spending. (And that's excluding perhaps $200 billion in special off-budget spending on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.) Those aren't expenses that are going to go away any time soon--and entitlement spending will only increase. Worse yet, these expenses are all "sacred cows" with their own powerful, entrenched supporters, and proposing changes to them can be political suicide.
So the only realistic way to tackle enormous government outlays seems heretofore unfeasible given the lack of courage or incentive neither political party has shown for years. It has always been easiest to speak in cute sound bites about fiscal responsibility, and it has never been politically acceptable to make the sacrifices necessary to affect real change. Until our politicians reset our expectations of the political process by raising the level of sophistication in their debate--acknowledging that every hard decision is made with consequences, but that the greater good must prevail--our national political discourse will continue to be conducted on a debased level. And we will suffer for it.