With their vote this week to impose strict limits on future federal spending, House Republicans continued an argument not so much with Democrats as with demography. The real current they are seeking to reverse is not some ideological drive from President Obama to convert America into Sweden; it’s the inexorably rising cost of providing retirement security, especially health care, to an aging society.
The cut, cap, and balance bill that Republicans muscled through the House would authorize an increase in the federal debt ceiling only after Congress approved a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget. The bill doesn’t specify the spending level at which Washington must balance the budget, but each of the major balanced-budget proposals that House Republicans have already introduced would eventually limit federal spending to an amount equal to 18 percent of the nation’s total economic output.
Federal spending hasn’t represented that small a share of the economy since 1966, when it stood at 17.8 percent. That’s an especially revealing comparison because 1966 was the year when Medicare went into effect—the first guarantee of health coverage for the nation’s seniors. The program didn’t even begin until July 1; Washington spent only about $100 million on it that first fiscal year. Medicaid, which provides care for both the poor and the elderly, was also just getting started; it cost the federal government only about $800 million in fiscal 1966.