Big political change is in the air. With Election Day just weeks away, many political analysts predict that Republicans will regain control of the House; a few think the G.O.P. will retake the Senate, too.
Still, post-1970 history hints that no matter which party heads the House, steers the Senate or occupies the Oval Office, little is likely to change in three fundamental areas: how much the federal government spends, how it administers the programs it funds and what most Americans want from Washington.
Federal spending as a percentage of gross domestic product was 20.7 percent when President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, took office in 1977 and 21.2 percent when President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, left office in 1989. It was 22.1 percent when the Democrat Bill Clinton was elected president in 1993 and 20.9 percent when the Republican George W. Bush was elected president in 2000.
As the recession that started in 2007 deepened, Congress passed two economic stimulus bills in 2008 and one in 2009. Federal spending as a percentage of G.D.P. was 24.7 percent in 2009; it will finish this year at about 23.8 percent, just slightly above the 23.5 percent in 1983 that followed President Reagan’s first several budgets, each fashioned in the shadow of a recession.
But as the Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2002, even without huge new defense outlays, federal spending as a percentage of G.D.P. could reach nearly 40 percent in the half-century ahead, a level not seen since World War II.
And whether the new health care law is kept or killed, Washington will be paying interest on a $20 trillion national debt by 2015. By 2030 combined spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (already over 40 percent of the federal budget) will exceed half of all federal spending.
Since 1960 the number of federal non-defense employees has averaged around two million, but the number of people who work indirectly for Washington as employees of business firms, nonprofit organizations and state and local government agencies that are largely, if not entirely, funded by Washington has mushroomed to about 13 million and counting.
Hundreds of federal programs, including giant ones like Medicaid and Medicare, are now run this way. The Department of Homeland Security has more private workers (about 200,000) than federal workers (about 188,000). Even the military relies heavily on private workers. In 2006 there were in Iraq nearly as many private workers as soldiers.
Most research finds that this proxy administrative system has neither saved money nor improved government performance. Its more famous failures include fraud in Medicare, defense procurement scandals and the FEMA follies on the Gulf Coast. Since 1969 five major government reform commissions (two championed by Republicans, two cheered by Democrats and one with a bipartisan pedigree) have wrestled in vain with how Washington administers the programs it funds.
As Benjamin Page and other scholars have documented, most Americans are both “philosophically conservative” (we want less big government and favor free enterprise) and “operationally liberal” (we want more government benefits for all and cling to the benefits we receive). Just as many people want to go to heaven without actually having to die, so do many people want from Washington what only magicians, not politicians, can deliver: smaller government that protects or expands existing programs and supplies more benefits without adding more bureaucracy or raising more money by taxes.
No wonder no leaders seem to satisfy us: the incumbent Democratic president, his Republican predecessor, Democrats in Congress and Repub-licans in Congress all rank below 50 percent in public approval.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that as “far as possible citizens should take an active part in public life” and that political authority and participation ought to be directed toward “the common good.”
Pray that We the People and our elected leaders—whether Republican, Democrat or Independent, liberal or conservative—will approach national politics in an ever more sober and selfless civic spirit.