President Cheney?

January 13, 2001

by John K. Bates

Politicians are often fond of the art of hyperbole, which Webster’s defines as “verbal overstatement or understatement.” Surely this was the case when George W. Bush declared this past weekend that taxes would be raised “over [his] dead body.” Thus President Bush, Jr. made more or less the same promise as President Bush, Sr. (he of “read my lips” fame) concerning taxes. And much like his father, today’s President Bush will break his promise. The difference is that, unlike his father, when this President Bush breaks his promise it apparently will require his physical demise. Vice-president Cheney would be well advised to make sure his heart is functioning properly.

Bush’s statement points to the problem of political promises, which have the shelf life of an average “boy band.” There is no doubt President Bush meant what he said, but the “dead body” comment actually gave it much less weight, to the point where it could be perceived as a joke. Does anyone think for one second that President Bush would actually die before he would sign a tax increase? Especially a president who - like Bill Clinton before him - does everything with one cold, calculating eye on his political future? The utterance of such a silly oath immediately renders Bush’s determination to be unserious; it immediately gives him an out if he in fact ends up reneging on his promise. “There is no way anyone could have taken me seriously,” one can imagine Bush saying. Or perhaps he will simply say, “It depends on the meaning of the word dead,” while taking on an eerie resemblance to his pathologically untrue predecessor.

Bush’s words become more specious when one considers two facts. One - and most Americans can be forgiven for forgetting this fact as it is rarely reported or understood by the media - all spending and tax policy originates and comes from Congress. Specifically, the United States Constitution gives the House of Representatives authority over all tax legislation. The president has a role, but it is limited to an advisory role until the point where the president has to sign or veto a bill. This role sometimes carries substantial power, but as the 1995 budget showdown proved, when Republicans are seen as “shutting government down” they will cave in to the Democrats’ demands. So Bush has very limited power indeed over the tax and spending policies that will come from the house.

But the second damning fact against Bush being able to keep his promise is the simple fact of both his and the Republican Party’s track record the past seven years. As this space has maintained for some time, those who call themselves “Republicans” when they run for Congress certainly do not act like it in the way that they govern. If these people ever were dedicated to the principle that smaller government is something which should be desired, they lost that dedication sometime within the first week of gaining the power of people’s purse strings. From all appearances, Bush is no different; he has openly embraced government from the early days of his campaign. In fact, during the seven years the “party of smaller government” has controlled the budget in Washington, the budget has consistently increased and government has consistently grown.

The chart below shows this in clear detail. Observe if you will the levels of government spending between 1994 and 2001 - a time when Republicans were in complete control of the House and Senate. Also note the middle line, which shows “Human Resources” spending. This category (as listed by OMB) includes everything from Social Security to health care to education to welfare to veteran’s benefits. In other words, it includes all of the “social programs” that Republicans have long claimed to be against. As the budget increased, so did the human resource spending. Indeed, the tracking is quite close, suggesting that much of the growth in government in the past seven years is from increases in this type of spending. A further observation notes that defense spending (the bottom line) remained more or less flat during this time frame. Instead of government-cutting crusaders, what we have are legislators increasing welfare and human resource spending (and taxes) while holding defense spending flat. Sounds like Ted Kennedy and Richard Gephardt were in charge, but in reality it was Trent Lott, Newt Gingrich, and Dennis Hastert who were running things. In summary, annual federal spending during the GOP Congress increased by an average of 3.3%, while “human resources” spending increased by an annual rate of 4.75%. Defense spending on average declined by 0.6% annually.

To be fair, there is some truth in the point some conservatives continue to make, which is, “Well, the Republicans are bad, but they are better than the Democrats.” To demonstrate, let’s take a look at spending during the eight years prior to 1994, a time when Democrats ran Congress and a time when a Republican was president for six of the eight years.

The average increase in federal spending during the eight years of Democratic control of Congress 5.2%, while “human resources” spending increased by 8%. Defense spending increased by an average of 1% annually.

What does all this mean, and how does this tie into Bush’s stand on taxes, which at one point long ago was supposed to be the topic of this column?

The Republican Party, since about 1988 and especially since 1995, has decided that the holding of political power is far more important than the principled exercise of that power. In many respects, Clinton’s Democratic Party and Bush’s GOP are one and the same. Both seek the counsel of opinion polls. Both reach out to all people - even political opponents - in the name of “inclusiveness.” Both grow government. And both will sacrifice the core principles on which they were elected to retain political power. (Clinton supported welfare reform and declared, “The era of big government is over.” Bush abandoned school choice, pared his already small tax cuts and has supported an enormous expansion of government power in the name of “security.”) Both Clinton’s and Bush’s policies of accommodation would have been anathema to principled politicians such as Roosevelt and Reagan. But they merrily continue, encouraged by supporters and party members too blind to the acquisition of power to see or care that they are gutting everything their parties ever stood for.

Hence, government grew to record levels in the past seven years - even during prosperous times. Taxes were not significantly cut, even though we paid for an enormous budget surplus. Both of these happened under the watch of Republicans, which leads to the conclusion that the Republicans love big government. And therefore taxes will be raised during the coming budget deficit. Mr. Bush, penned in by Democrats, the media and even some in his own party and entirely too willing to allow his policies to be shaped by opinion polls, will conclude he has no choice in the matter. Like his father, he will break his promise on taxes. Unlike his father, he has pledged he will not survive the breaking of that promise.

Obviously Bush was not literal when he made his claim that taxes will be raised “over his dead body.” Not when his record and his party’s record suggests that if push comes to shove and they want to retain power and opinion polls tell them that taxes should be raised, they will certainly raise taxes. But it is entertaining to think that maybe he was serious. It would in some ways be nice if a politician had to cause his own demise for breaking a promise. It certainly would set a precedent for future leaders. And it would restore some sense of honesty and accountability to an office from which such honorable sentiments have long passed.

Hyperbole and joking aside, he should never have uttered such a ridiculous statement. But just in case, someone should check Vice President Cheney’s heart to make sure it is functioning properly. He may be needed soon.


John K. Bates is a part-time freelance writer who works in the energy engineering field and lives in the Denver, Colorado area. He enjoys many outdoor pursuits and the company of his family of three cats. His columns can also be seen on

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For more of John's articles, visit his archives.

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