Republican policy maintains government has grown too large and should be cut back. Not only should it get out of the way of business, but also a reduced government would allow for generous tax cuts.
That sounds like a simple proposition to tame a government that issues too many regulations and pursues goals that could be better left to the private sector.
But, below the surface, this argument is not about government in general. It is targeted at social welfare policies that grew up during and after the 1930s New Deal. Conservatives want to repeal these policies regardless of the assistance they provide to tens of millions of Americans.
If adopted, this policy would amount to a rollback of history to the period between the end of the Civil War and the Great Depression when the federal government’s prime role was to aid business, even if it exploited workers.
But it is clear that a frontal assault on social welfare policy won’t succeed. Virtually all Democrats support New Deal social policy and millions of voters have come to benefit from its programs.
Recently, it has become evident that advocates of cutting government have not given up. Instead, they pursue their goals more indirectly and patiently.
Gov. Paul LePage has created a classic example of this more subtle approach. His tactics undermine the widely held belief that the essential function of government is to maintain public health and safety.
The Maine Legislature has funded public health efforts to fight disease when it appears and to promote healthful conditions to protect people. In recent years, this has included fighting tuberculosis and flu and assisting in the survival of infants.
Funding supported 50 public health nurses. Now, there are only 25. As nurses retired or left, they were not replaced. The survivors are now spread so thinly as to be unable to do much of the job assigned to them by law.
The next step is not difficult to forecast. LePage wants to cut 2,300 state jobs. He suggests that this can be accomplished mostly by eliminating vacant positions, so few state employees would lose their jobs.
First, his administration artificially creates vacancies and then he seeks to eliminate the vacant positions as unnecessary. To accomplish his policy, he ignores the statutory requirements for public health nurses and refuses to spend money appropriated for them. But he cuts the size of government and produces savings for taxpayers.
At the federal level, the GOP tried to convert Social Security into what would amount to a private retirement scheme. The proposal flopped when the votes in Congress to adopt it were lacking.
Congressional Republicans, unable to transform Social Security into an investment fund, are attacking the money to administer it. While benefits are financed by employer and employee contributions, the operation of the program is subject to the normal congressional appropriation process.
Suffering from funding cuts, the program will increasingly falter and public discontent can be expected to rise. Then, the time may be ripe for reshaping Social Security, as we now know it.
In both the public health nurse and Social Security moves, field operations are now being drastically cut and the provision of services slowed.
A closer look reveals that cutting government spending is more about reducing or eliminating targeted social programs than about meaningful change in the size of government.
Total federal outlays in 2015 were $3.7 trillion. Cutting Social Security administrative costs, as now proposed, would produce savings of two-thousandths of one percent.
While that could undermine Social Security, it will not produce tax cuts. It would cut the size of government only by laying off people who help beneficiaries.
The Defense Department receives half the funds subject to annual appropriation, a total amount equal to all other federal government agencies combined. While its spending could make it the prime target for reducing the size of government, if that’s what voters really want, it is not the focus of budget cutters.
Like virtually any large entity, government can be amazingly inefficient and wasteful. When candidates tell voters they want to cut government spending, their promise is often based on eliminating waste and promoting efficiency, actions that invariably fail for fear of causing major job losses.
The issue is not smaller government or tax cuts. Opponents of social welfare spending sense the time may be ripe to cut it, while promising lower taxes. Their solution is having private sector jobs replace benefits taken from people whom they believe have become too dependent on government handouts.