John Kasich is a good case study in the Republican Party's alleged commitment to smaller government.
Kasich came to Washington 32 years ago with visions of budget cuts dancing in his head. He wrote budgets containing such cuts as a backbencher, until he rose all the way up the ranks to chairman of the House Budget Committee.
"The great issue of the future is whether we take our power back or let powerful institutions in Washington continue to frustrate our will," he said in a 1990s speech.
As governor of Ohio, however, Kasich is most famous for saying smaller government isn't such a great issue for the future of your immortal soul. Defending his acceptance of Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, he said, "Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he's probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small."
Now the sixteenth declared Republican presidential candidate, Kasich said a lot of words in his announcement speech Tuesday. Not many of them had to do with shrinking government. There were some references to balancing the budget, both nationally and in Ohio. But the word "cut" was used four times, three in relation to taxes, one in reference to bureaucracy, zero times concerning spending.
"And we didn't have to slash — we didn't have to slash things," Kasich said of his budget-balancing experience in Ohio. "We had to use the 21st-century formula: improve things, make a better product at a lower price, let mom and dad stay in the home rather than being forced in a nursing home — let them stay in their own home."
If a candidate like Kasich won't talk about cutting the federal government down to size, what hope is there for the rest of the Republican field? Jeb Bush gave us part of his answer Monday.
In addition to a six-year waiting period before members of Congress can lobby and a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, the former Florida governor called for a 10 percent reduction in the federal workforce plus an immediate hiring freeze.
The New York Times described Bush's plan as "a sweeping and detailed plan to rein in the size of the federal government and to curb the influence of the lobbyists who live off it," and it certainly is one key component of a limited-government agenda. But is the size of the federal workforce really the best proxy for the size of the federal government?
Consider that there were marginally more federal civilian employees in 1995 than in 2009, when federal spending consumed the highest percentage of the economy since World War II. There were also more civilian federal workers when the top marginal income tax rate was 28 percent in the late 1980s than at any point since it was raised to 39.6 percent and during some periods when it was as high as 70 percent.
At the national level, Republicans haven't attempted to cut government often. But they have tried a few different approaches.
Supply-side tax cuts, demand-side government cuts. When Ronald Reagan was president, conservatives hoped they could launch an indirect assault on the size and scope of federal government. The idea was that reductions in marginal tax rates, then far out along the Laffer Curve, would spur investment and economic growth. The growth of the private economy would help shrink the public sector by reducing the demand for government services.
Federal spending did decline modestly as a percentage of GDP from a peak of 22.8 percent in 1983 to 20.5 percent in 1989. The economy averaged 4 percent annual growth during this period, the goal Jeb Bush has set for his administration. But no major federal program was abolished, a new Cabinet-level agency was created, entitlements went unreformed and total spending rose — and quickly rebounded as a percentage of GDP.
Divided government. During the 1990s, Kasich and Newt Gingrich negotiated with Bill Clinton to achieve the first balanced federal budget since 1969. Federal spending as a percentage of GDP fell well below its Reagan-era low to just 17.6 percent in 2001.
Under divided government, spending is theoretically kept in check by the competition between the two parties — neither party gets all its spending priorities. But the '90s experience also featured a Republican Congress that initially was characterized by the anti-spending zeal of the 1994 "revolution" and a Democratic president with some centrist tendencies who had responded to past rebukes from the voters by moving marginally to the right.
Does anyone have any illusion that, say, a President Kasich teamed with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would produce similar results? Moreover, the long-term drivers of government growth and federal debt are entitlement programs. Again in theory, two parties working together would be best suited to reforming entitlements. In practice, it is hard to imagine these reforms getting the Democratic support they'd need to pass.
Starve the beast. When George W. Bush was president, many conservatives made the argument that cutting taxes would force Washington to cut spending too because the feds would no longer have the revenues to pay for it. This never made much sense in theory — Bush's own vice president said "deficits don't matter — and it didn't work in practice.
Revenues ultimately fell to 17.1 percent of GDP, though that had at least as much to do with the faltering economy as the tax cuts. Federal spending gradually eclipsed 20 percent of the economy. The president and Congress who were supposed to starve the beast instead passed the biggest new entitlement since the Great Society, created the Department of Homeland Security, increased discretionary spending and caused the Department of Education to grow.
Emergency! Under President Obama, congressional Republicans have attempted to use inflection points already baked into the law, such as expiring tax cuts, continuing resolutions and debt ceilings, to extract spending concessions from the White House. This strategy has worked only once, resulting in the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration. Federal spending has fallen from a peak of 24.4 percent of GDP in 2009 to 20.3 percent in 2014.
But no real progress has been made in cutting long-term spending. Obamacare remains the law of the land. And both parties are constantly scheming to get out of the sequester, suggesting it won't be a sustainable spending solution.
The smart bet is that while there is much more than a dime's worth of difference between a Democratic and Republican president, the size of the federal government won't be one of the differences.