One of the reasons many of us supported George W. Bush for President in 2000 was his quiet but clear endorsement of the responsibility society. After the drift of the Clinton years, the new President seemed to be saying that he would not trivialize his responsibilities for personal pleasure or political expediency. And in many instances--especially the war on terrorism--he has more than lived up to this pledge.
But there is a glaring exception. It's a basic presidential responsibility, but we sometimes overlook it or think of it as an economic or technical matter rather than a profound moral one. In three short years, this President has so ramped up government spending that he has turned a fiscal surplus into a huge and mounting debt. Far from taking responsibility for the nation's finances, the President has shirked basic housekeeping and foisted crippling debt on the next generation. If a President is in some sense the father of an extended family, Bush is fast becoming a deadbeat dad, living it up for short-term gain while abandoning his children to a life of insecurity and debt.
Not all borrowing is bad, of course. When a recession hits or a war breaks out, it makes sense for governments to borrow--as long as they pledge to run surpluses in better times. And a big chunk of the current deficit can be blamed on the recession that followed the burst bubble of the late 1990s and on the vital expenditures for a war that shows no sign of abating. But what's remarkable about the Bush record is that this does not explain the full extent of our fiscal crisis. Set aside the tax cuts. What's really worrying to many conservatives is the spending side of the equation. Even if you take his defense and entitlement spending out of the picture altogether, Bush still has increased federal spending a whopping 21% in three years. That compares with an actual decrease of 0.7% in the first three years of Bill Clinton. No wonder small-government groups like the Cato Institute or the Club for Growth are increasingly dismayed.
Spending on education is up 61%; on energy, 22%; on health and human services, 21%; on the Labor Department, a massive 56%. According to a new study by the Brookings Institution, the Bush Administration has boosted the number of people working for the Federal Government to a 13-year high. While the President won't countenance any tax increases to ease the deficit, he is still endorsing the biggest new federal entitlement since 1965, a prescription-drug benefit for seniors. The official cost over 10 years is $400 billion, but given rocketing prices for drugs, it could well be far higher. At the same time, he has done nothing substantive to reform Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security to avert the looming burden of the baby boomers' retirement years.