Good times, good times. Just a little over twenty years ago, a resurgent and conservative Republican Party forced a Democratic president to include this in his State of the Union speech. “The era of big government,” Bill Clinton told the joint session of Congress in January 1996, “is over.”
Well, if it was ever truly over, it’s on its way back. Last week, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the size of federal government has returned to its pre-sequester level, thanks to the addition of almost 80,000 employees over the last two years. It’s still nowhere near the pre-Contract with America revolution level, but it’s certainly heading in that direction.
But it’s the attitudes toward big government — the acceptance of it, and even celebration in popular culture — that are harbingers of Bigger Brothers to come. Last weekend, for instance, the New York Times published a laudatory profile of Barack Obama and his penchant for executive power and action. Binyamin Applebaum and Michael Shear note that he’s become “one of the most prolific authors of major regulations in presidential history,” and blames Republicans — for resisting the growth of big government:
In nearly eight years in office, President Obama has sought to reshape the nation with a sweeping assertion of executive authority and a canon of regulations that have inserted the United States government more deeply into American life. …
Blocked for most of his presidency by Congress, Mr. Obama has sought to act however he could. In the process he created the kind of government neither he nor the Republicans wanted — one that depended on bureaucratic bulldozing rather than legislative transparency. But once Mr. Obama got the taste for it, he pursued his executive power without apology, and in ways that will shape the presidency for decades to come.
The Obama administration in its first seven years finalized 560 major regulations — those classified by the Congressional Budget Office as having particularly significant economic or social impacts. That was nearly 50 percent more than the George W. Bush administration during the comparable period, according to data kept by the regulatory studies center at George Washington University.
How dare Republicans try to constrain the growth of the regulatory state! Why, it’s no wonder that Obama just assumed imperial powers rather than deal with legislatures elected by the voters expressly to stop the expansion of big government. Who are the voters to stand in the way of The Coming Utopia, anyway?
Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be much chance of reversing this momentum in the next few years. Shear and Applebaum point out that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have “promised to act in service of their own goals.” But in my column for The Fiscal Times, I point out that there are still differences in degree between the two:
The bad news is that the expansion of government, both in size and in impact, is likely to grow no matter the outcome of the presidential election. Republican nominee Donald Trump has largely dispensed with the smaller-government priorities normally championed by its presidential candidates. His immigration policies alone will require significant expansion of the federal government, but Trump’s declaration that conservatism is irrelevant makes his approach clear. His argument that he alone can save the US and that he plans to use his executive power to get things accomplished promise even bigger and more intrusive government, rather than rolling both trends back.
If Trump signals staying the course, then Hillary Clinton’s campaign shouts “ramming speed” on big-government momentum.The Democratic nominee has promised to double down on Obama’s executive orders on immigration, which have already been suspended by courts. The former First Lady wants to impose more regulation on gun ownership, political speech, and wants a massive expansion of the regulatory regime to “fight against environmental injustice.” Clinton also declares that she will “defend and expand the Affordable Care Act,” promising to expand federal initiatives on a number of fronts in service to a regulatory system that has almost collapsed the health-insurance industry already.
And so the era of big government returns – with a vengeance. The only question, at least for the next four years, is whose hands will be on its levers and whether the abuses to come will finally awaken Americans to the dangers that concentration of power holds.