December 20, 2005

It’s Still Patriotic to Cut Government Spending

(The following article originally appeared in the December 17, 2005 edition of the Wisconsin State Journal.)

“America is only now beginning to learn the hard lessons of war. War means sacrifice – sacrifice of lives and of dollars. Unbelievably rich as America has been, we are now discovering that our wealth is not limitless…This very situation makes it all the more imperative the waste be eliminated in all levels of government – federal, state, and local. This is not merely a matter of practical common sense but raises also an important moral issue. When governments ask citizens to make unparalleled sacrifices, they must themselves set the example.”

—A Wartime Approach to the Tax Problem, Tax Foundation 1943, (emphasis added)

Watching the Congress and the White House wring their hands over a reconciliation bill that would cut a trivial 0.425 percent from the $12.7 trillion that the government will spend over the next five years, it may seem quaint to read that ridding the government of waste and unnecessary spending during times of need was once considered patriotic.

During World War II, as government was asking Americans to recycle tires and live on ration coupons, groups such as the Tax Foundation fanned out across the country to help citizens organize watchdog groups to monitor wasteful government spending at the federal, state, and local levels. By 1943, there were taxpayer associations in 34 states and in 150 cities organized under the banner of good government slogans such as: “War Means – The Tax Dollar Must Go Further” and “Enlist Your State and Community in the Drive for Honest Government.”

In order to stimulate public interest in the effort, groups such as the Jaycees offered cash prizes “for the most original and most complete programs which have effected the saving of public funds.” First Prize $50, Second Prize $25, Third Prize $10. Citizens were then encouraged to send away for organizational kits to start their own watchdog group.

These citizens understood that runaway spending would not only saddle them with higher debt, but that they would eventually have to pay the bill with higher taxes. A war-era organizational flyer in the Tax Foundation archives encourages citizens to join a taxpayer group because, “Every time Congress spends a billion, your family’s eventual obligations jump $43. Ten billion and your obligated for $430.”

Of course, that was a time when $1 billion was real money. This fiscal year, the government is estimated to spend nearly $2.3 trillion (2,300 billions). That’s equal to nearly $24,000 for every taxpayer in America.

The astronomical costs of Hurricane Katrina, combined with the continued cost of the Iraq War, is creating a groundswell of public support for cutting back on current spending and earmarked projects in order to slow the growth of government. If lawmakers continue to resist taxpayers wishes, they not only will begin to look out of touch with public sentiment but also out of touch with the American spirit of giving and sacrifice during times of emergency.

If appeals to patriotism are not enough to shame lawmakers into cutting spending perhaps appeals to their survival will. According to a Tax Foundation assessment of the 1942 congressional elections, reelected Senators were “six times as economy minded as those who were defeated” and reelected House members were “twice as economy minded as the Representatives who were defeated.” This shows that during times of crisis, Americans will reward politicians who are smart spenders, not big spenders.

Scott A. Hodge is the president of the Tax Foundation, a non-partisan policy organization in Washington, DC.