Limited Government Can Make a Comeback After Pandemic

Member Group : Commonwealth Foundation

This year’s federal deficit is set to match the entire 1996 federal budget, adjusted for inflation. Despite such overwhelming spending, Democrats in Congress have proposed an unprecedented $3.5 trillion budget, in addition to the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that failed its first Senate vote last week.

For advocates of limited government, it’s easy to feel like the fight is over and the country is on the path to fiscal ruin. But such pessimism is unwarranted.

The profligate political culture that has infected Washington and many state governments isn’t an historical end point. Though voters tend to enjoy handouts, at least temporarily, they dislike the long-term economic consequences of excessive spending. Moreover, the imperious actions of governors amid the COVID-19 crisis have weakened voters’ support for unrestricted executive powers and the government’s education monopoly.

Consider the present economic climate. As prices – including for housing, food, and fuel – precipitously increase, business owners and consumers alike are worried about inflation. President Joe Biden has responded by embarking on a futile attempt to distract from the obvious source of the problem: government spending and easy money.

At the same time, a recent New York Times poll shows that 52% to 71% of Americans support ending the $300-per-week extra unemployment pay from Washington. Even today, months after communities fully reopened, too many Americans remain out of work while the federal government continues to subsidize unemployment. But Americans instinctively dislike anti-work policies. Now, state governments are reinstating work-search requirements; 26 states have even rejected federal unemployment supplements.

Meanwhile, as families endured a year of locked classrooms – especially in public school districts – there is a renewed interest in educational choice. As it stands, more than a dozen states have either created or expanded education-choice programs following the pandemic, with more states poised to act soon.

Even in my home state of Pennsylvania, where Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is a teachers’ union favorite, legislation that increases tax-credit scholarships for thousands of low-income students is now law.

The fact that states are moving quickly to adjust their education policies to support families, rather than school bureaucracies, is another encouraging shift toward limited government.

But that is changing. For the first time in perhaps a century, there is a bipartisan trend toward reducing executive power following governors’ abuses of “emergency” declarations since March 2020. About 45 states are considering proposals to reduce their governor’s emergency powers and to restore checks and balances. Nearly a dozen states have already adopted such policies.

In Ohio and Indiana, for example, Republican legislatures are responding to overreach from a Republican governor. In New York, a Democratic legislature is taking on Democrat Andrew Cuomo. And in Pennsylvania, which became the first state to rein in executive power through a constitutional amendment, several Democratic lawmakers joined the Republican legislature in taking on Wolf.

After this past year, there’s a countermovement against government overreach. Deficit spending among Republicans and Democrats preceded the pandemic, but emerging state trends show that America isn’t doomed to insolvency and unchecked bureaucratic growth.

If anything, America may be entering an age of saner policies, which happened in both 1994 and 2010. The Republican Revolution of 1994, which handed the speaker’s gavel to Newt Gingrich, came on the heels of President Bill Clinton’s tax hikes. The Tea Party’s 2010 sweep came as a result of blowback against President Barack Obama’s failed Recovery Act and the Affordable Care Act.

Nathan Benefield is vice president and COO of the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.