The congressional recess: A stroll down memory lane

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Published: April 24,2011

Tags: Marty Wiseman, MBJ Columns

The two-week Easter recess could not have come at a better time for members of the United States Senate and House of Representatives. Now, albeit briefly, they can relax their grips on each other’s throats, and we can use the time to take a deep breath and assess where we are. Perhaps most of us have wondered in the last few days whether there is any such thing as compromise left in our approach to government.

Let us begin by recalling some history that brought us to the point that we find ourselves in today. The misery of the Great Depression permeated every nook and cranny of American lives. Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932, and he brought with him a decidedly different set of beliefs than his Republican predecessor Herbert Hoover. Roosevelt believed that, if properly targeted, the United States government had the power to soften the blows of the Great Depression on the lives of the average citizen. He appointed Frances Perkins as secretary of labor, and she began to work tirelessly to create government programs that held the promise to provide a government safety net where none had existed before. Perkins stated that, “I came to Washington to work for God, FDR and the millions of forgotten, plain, common workingmen.”

The Social Security Act of 1935 was intended to provide financial benefits to the elderly who were not likely to be able to regain lost savings once the economic calamity had ended. From the first days of debate the familiar charges of socialism and communism were hurled at the Democratic administration. Though a number of Republicans ultimately voted for the passage of the Social Security Act, GOP resentment of the Roosevelt expansion of social programs has never completely subsided.

Fast forward 30 years to the passage of the Medicare Act of 1965. Lyndon Baines Johnson, much like Roosevelt, articulated his belief that the American government could wipe out poverty and undergird its citizens with a safety net adequate to protect them from financial ruin. The Medicare Act created a program of health coverage for Americans over the age of 65, and in so doing it represented the first successful attempt, after many unsuccessful ones, at creating a national health insurance program.

Ronald Reagan became the “patron saint” of Republicans in the modern era when he was able to clearly articulate what conservative Republicans had been saying since that fateful day in 1935 when Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act. That message was that it is perfectly acceptable to have a disdain for – perhaps even a hatred for – government to the extent that one could not rest easy until there is much less of it. Indeed, it was Reagan’s budget director David Stockman who coined the phrase “starving the beast” as a metaphor of how big government must be deprived of the sustenance of tax revenues so that lawmakers would supposedly be left with no other option than drastically cutting government expenditures.

While efforts to “starve the beast” during the Reagan administration were not successful the approach did not die. The Democratic administration of Bill Clinton, turbulent though it was, drew to a conclusion with the first budget surplus in decades. The Republican administration of George W. Bush, though as determined as ever to dramatically cut the size of government, faced the dilemma of warning the public against “mortgaging our children’s future” when in fact there was a growing sum of money in the bank. Bush tax strategist Grover Norquist was not about to waste this opportunity to take a “meat ax” to government simply because the budget was balanced. He simply had to add a step and that was to significantly cut taxes taking the budget deeply enough into the red that there would be little choice but to drastically cut expenditures. “Kill the taxes and you kill the government” became Norquist’s mantra. The Norquist strategy of “starving the beast” first articulated by Reagan budget director David Stockman has indeed worked as it was predicted to do.

This brings us to today. The burgeoning deficit is more a smokescreen than it is the central issue. In fact, today’s battle began over 75 years ago when FDR claimed that the United States government had the wherewithal to come to the aid of the average citizen in his “battle against the vicissitudes of life.”  While Democrats have discovered increasing roles for government to play, Republicans have resisted such expansion just as vigorously claiming that, when properly taken advantage of, the free market contains all solutions necessary for material success for anyone willing to join the fray. Today, both parties clearly and completely agree that the deficit is a major danger and that it must be addressed. This is instead the “battle of the century” over the role of the United States government in providing various social programs for the personal well-being of its citizens. In essence, it is the battle for the philosophical core of the country.

Many successful candidates for Congress ran promising never to compromise, and their early performance indicates that they mean it. Grover Norquist promised to “shrink the size of government until we can drown it in the bathtub.”

It is safe to say the battle is on.

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