Spend and Spend Alike

By Tom Shoop

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, like many of his constituents, doesn't think the federal government is doing a good enough job of securing U.S. borders. In an appearance on Fox News Sunday in May, he pointedly declined to criticize the Minuteman Project - you know, the one where folks set themselves up with lawn chairs and barbecue grills on the Arizona border in April to ward off would-be illegal immigrants. Such efforts, he said, are the inevitable result of the federal government's failure to fulfill its responsibilities.

But don't tell the governor that with a budget deficit that could approach $400 billion this year, the federal government just might not be able to afford to seal off the borders. "We have the money to do it," he insisted. "It is not a lack of money. When we can afford the war in Iraq, we can afford to control our own borders."

The same argument - despite its utter illogicality - has been used for decades to justify all manner of new federal spending. Both Republicans and Democrats have adopted it. Last November, for example, Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, made the case for increased funding for the Veterans Affairs Department this way: "A country that can afford tax breaks for people making over $1 million a year can surely afford to reduce months-long waiting lists of veterans who deserve and need VA health care."

But this line of reasoning only seems to work in the federal context. It certainly doesn't play well on the domestic front, at least not in my house. ("Hey honey, if we can afford to replace the busted water heater, we can afford a plasma TV, right?")

The math here should not be that hard: When you spend money in one place (wisely or not), that means you have less to spend elsewhere, not more. Even the people who make the "If we can afford X, then we can afford Y" argument must understand this on some level. So what they really mean is one of the following:

It's unlikely that Schwarzenegger would endorse the first line of reasoning (although his comments could be construed as a sly nod to his left-of-center constituents, who would be happy to see money carved out of the defense budget to pay for other priorities). But in this era, the second type of argument has worked very well. In fact, it could be said to be the cornerstone of the current budgetary approach in the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress.

In May, the libertarian Cato Institute issued a report on the growth of the federal budget since President Bush took office. "Throughout the past 40 years," the report concluded, "most presidents have cut or restrained lower-priority spending to make room for higher-priority spending. What is driving George W. Bush's budget bloat is a reversal of that trend." Since 2001, government spending has gone from $1.86 trillion to $2.48 trillion - a 33 percent jump.

You might say that's because we're fighting a war against terrorism on several fronts. But while defense spending is indeed on the way up, domestic spending is increasing at an even more rapid pace - 36 percent since 2001. Even when both defense and homeland security spending are taken out of the equation, Bush outspends every president except Richard Nixon in the past four decades.

You might say that the rapid growth of spending on entitlement programs is to blame. But discretionary spending has eclipsed entitlement spending in three of the past four years.

You might say that Congress spends the money, not the president. But President Bush hasn't vetoed a single spending bill yet. And his fiscal 2006 budget proposes another 3.5 percent boost in federal spending. So don't be too quick to dismiss Schwarzenegger's plea for a beefed-up border presence as the rantings of an entertainer-turned-politician who doesn't understand the budget process. Apparently, he understands it all too well.