The Beast Is Starved

The federal government's growing role in health care reform may be the GOP's best friend. Increased expenses will crowd out other federal spending, raising important questions for both the Democrats and the Republicans about what is the proper role of government.

Republicans cannot now decide if they should be weary or gleeful. On one hand, the Obama administration and the current Democratic majority are their worst philosophical nightmare.  Government's role is expanding and deficits are rising. Financial reform is around the corner, and there is talk of, gasp, increased environmental regulation. We already hear how limited government conservatives respond to this agenda: they have labeled it socialist, or in more polite circles, European.

The GOP's sanguine side of this equation is that it has finally mobilized what but a few months ago was a party lost between stagnation and intellectual vacuity.  Small government conservative movements are sprouting nationwide, most notably in the form of the Tea Party.  But more important for next year's elections is the infusion of campaign cash that these citizens are giving to GOP candidates.

The Democrats similarly are torn between being rejoiceful or worrisome. The executive and legislative branches are theirs, and the optimism of their GOP counterparts may be overstated. The president will soon have another Supreme Court justice nominee.  While presidential and congressional approval polls range from the middling to the dismal, the fact remains that their party is responsible for one of the greater legislative accomplishments of recent memory; health care reform is now the law of the land. Despite high unemployment numbers, the stock market is slowly rising.

Democratic realists must now acknowledge that there are limits to the role of government.  With health care passed, mounting deficits stemming from entitlement programs, and two wars (in Afghanistan and in Iraq), both the Democrats and the Republicans know that there is no money tree, and future governmental initiatives are more likely to be wishes and dreams than realities funded by the next Congress.

Defense spending in an era of terrorism is not likely to be curtailed. Foreign aid, a fraction of the total federal budget, may be more needed than ever. Armchair amateurs can claim that there is money to cut in the arts (there is not), or the National Science Foundation (ditto). An economic recovery will generate needed tax revenue, but that money is more likely to go to pay off debt, not to fund a new, ambitious initiative. We likely have reached the end of big government and the beginning of fiscal austerity, at least for the next four years, and more likely for the next decade.

The end of big government does not mean that there will no role for government. There will still be a NASA, an NIH, an FCC and an SEC. We will have meat inspectors, federal prosecutors, and a Forest Service. But the resistance to raising taxes, and the unwillingness of leaders from both parties to demand sacrifice, means that we the people want benefits, but do not want to pay for them. The result may just be a peculiar balance that satisfies neither the GOP nor the Democrats--a large federal government rethinking ways it can spend and do less. Given the costs of government and our unwillingness to pay for it, cost curtailment is not an option. It is a reality that Democrats and Republicans must embrace. The party that reinvents government more smartly and thoughtfully is likely to be the majority party--in the legislature and the executive branch--for the foreseeable future and beyond.

Robert M. Eisinger is the dean of the school of liberal arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design.