Commentary: Increased Government Spending Is Our Default Setting

A learning experience about government and policy came in the 1980s, while I worked in the nation’s capital for Paul Weyrich. A founder of the “New Right,” his ardent conservatism was tempered by an appreciation for, and understanding of, differing views.

Weyrich was usually fair in assessing the motivations of others, perhaps due to the years he spent in television, radio, and print journalism.

One day, he asked me to accompany him to a meeting on K Street, in northwest Washington.

We went to see a fellow whom Weyrich described as a friend of many years — albeit one of the “K Street bandits.” That was, and is, the amalgamation of lobbying groups, law firms, and others involved with the “permanent government” — those who will always be there, regardless of who comes and goes in the presidency, Congress, or even judiciary.

Weyrich ruefully observed that while the cast of characters — individuals and firms — may evolve over time, “K Street is forever.” Not all K Street people were or are personally corrupt, but they work in a system that seems corrupt. Regardless of surface public sentiment, government grows — whether through direct appropriations to agencies or “grants” to non-profits and public-private partnerships — generation after generation.

Paul’s relationships were eclectic, even diverse. He had asked the gray-haired member of the K Street power structure to review a proposed law hundreds of pages in length. He wanted to understand the substance of the regulatory bill, its likely impact on the economy, and both indirect and direct costs to taxpayers. Paul had promised protection of the man’s identity, wanting an absolutely candid assessment of the bill, which a powerful politician had asked Paul to support.

Weyrich and the old fellow did the talking, while I did the learning. Bottom line of the discussion came when the K Street guru, idly turning pages of a massive three-ring binder, smiled confidently and said, “You’re right, Paul. This is an absolutely horrible bill.” He paused for effect, and then added, “But it will be great for business.”

He meant great for the lobbying and litigation business, not for job creation and economic growth. Weyrich replied that he could not support the measure, and would stay out of the fight. The old guy agreed that was the right thing to do.

Republicans took control of Oklahoma state government in 2010, determined to reduce spending, right-size government, and cut taxes.

Eighteen months after Governor Mary Fallin came to office with a Republican House and Senate, the Legislature failed, rather dramatically, to reduce income taxes. Fallin signed legislation increasing state government spending by $321 million.

Intelligent, hard-working, and well-meaning people who want government to grow thwarted the legislative and executive majority of representatives for an electorate of intelligent, hard-working, and well-meaning people who want government to be restrained and taxes to be lower. Neither faction is delusional, but one might better understand than the other the dynamic of modern governance.

Upon reflection, the 2012 legislative session’s outcome was no surprise. Despite Republicans having 70 percent of the seats in the House, and two-thirds of the seats in the Senate, and 100 percent of the statewide elective offices, defenders of the status quo had a tactical advantage from the start.

To understand why, I commend to your attention a very important article, “Facing Up to Big Government,” by University of Pennsylvania political scientist John J. DiIulio, Jr. in the Spring 2012 issue of National Affairs. As DiIulio makes clear, big government is bigger than you think.

“Beyond those employed directly by the state are the workers of businesses and non-profit organizations paid or subsidized by one or more levels of government to help administer programs in defense, homeland security, health care, consumer-product safety, environmental protection, and so on. Indeed, big government in America involves far more than government: It involves Big Inter-Government (BIG) plus BIG’s Private Administrative Proxies (PAP) and their non-government but tax-paid employees. Let’s call it BIG PAP for short.”

Increased government spending is the default setting of modern political culture, both in Washington and in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma City doesn’t have a “K Street,” but it does have well-organized and well-funded associations more comfortable with the status quo of government growth than with economic liberty. 

Proposals to cut spending come and go, but the permanent government and its allies in the government-dependent private sector go on forever.In an era where distrust of government is high, and voters long (theoretically) for restraints on taxes and spending, government spending at all levels has risen. It took an unwelcome Great Recession to moderate the pace of growth, but the direction thus far remains inexorable. This is so because while all sorts of people understand that government’s present and projected unfunded liabilities are unsustainable, there are powerful lobbies for virtually every specific government program.

In the months just past, a death knell for significant tax reform tolled when legislators refused to reform transferable tax credits. That came early in the session, several weeks after behind-the-scenes lobbying broke into the open as advocates of the status quo delivered an early Christmas present to those who believe state government is best situated to pick economic winners and losers.

In a letter, the State Chamber, joined by the Oklahoma City and Tulsa chambers, opposed the most important policy proposals outlined in the long months of work by the Task Force on State Tax Credits and Economic Incentives. Chamber leaders opposed repeal of transferability, requirements for job creation or retention guarantees for incentive programs, and authority for the state auditor to review and assess incentive programs.

As Winston Churchill might put it, the Chamber letter wasn’t the end of dreams for income-tax reduction, but it was the beginning of the end.

The rest of the story flowed rather methodically to its conclusion.

OCPA continued to advance ideas on state-government spending (much in the same way that former OCPA trustee Tom Coburn now advances ideas on national-government spending). Early in the session, OCPA laid out more than $800 million in waste and inefficiencies in a widely circulated “green sheet.” Then, several Republican members of the House unveiled $500 million in potential savings. One by one those proposals died. Under lobbying pressure and demands to return to peak spending levels, doing nothing was more attractive to individual legislators than doing something.

OCPA’s Jonathan Small responded to questions and unveiled a list of “low-hanging fruit” — $190 million in spending reductions or policy changes that would yield savings. However, the Legislature limited itself to tinkering, nipping and tucking here and there, and institutionalizing modest administrative and technology reforms that might, indeed, yield true savings over time.

Promises from 2010 of spending restraint, and the explicit promise in February 2012 of a Reagan-style tax cut — with the governor saying she would seek a “game-changing” transformation of policy leading eventually to abolition of the income tax — became an elusive dream by May.

In the end, state officials held celebratory bill signings to tout measures increasing government spending on transportation, higher education, and human services.

DiIulio contends it is time for some modest steps that might, just might, slow down the juggernaut of government growth and buy time before that day of reckoning that virtually every economic analyst now believes is coming. In essence he is pleading to stave off the day of debt reckoning, hoping that the nation will sooner or later be blessed with Madisonian statesmen who will educate and lead Americans.

What’s happening to Republicans at the state Capitol brings to mind another story, this one from M. Stanton Evans, the venerable former Indiana newspaper editor who went to Washington decades ago and never lost his Old Right perspective.

One day over lunch in 1983, two years after the Reagan tax cuts but early in an ultimately losing battle to limit federal spending significantly, Stan reflected: “In 1980, thousands of conservatives flocked to Washington full of dreams and idealism, determined to clean out the cesspool of waste, fraud, and abuse, to drain the swamp of big government. Three years later, many of them have decided Washington is not really a cesspool; it’s more like a hot tub.”

Note: This essay first appeared in Perspective Magazine, a publication of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, and in The City Sentinel newspaper, a weekly in Oklahoma City. 

You may contact Patrick B. McGuigan at and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.