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Republicans’ born-again embrace of ‘big government’

In the 1990s, ABC TV’s Evening News ran more than 400 stories entitled “It’s Your Money.” Virtually all of them exposed ineffective or corrupt government expenditures.

“It’s Your Money” reflected and reinforced an assumption deeply embedded in American political culture. Ronald Reagan summed it up in his 1981 inaugural address: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

These days, polls indicate that only 20 percent of Americans trust government to do what’s right “always” or “most of the time.”

A substantial majority of Americans, however, also believe government should play a major role in, among other things, responding to natural disasters, ensuring safe food and medicine, strengthening the economy, maintaining infrastructure, expanding access to healthcare, protecting the environment, handling threats to public health, and helping people get out of poverty.

Nonetheless, Republican politicians have turned up the rhetoric and voted against virtually all legislation in these areas sponsored by Democrats, unless they conclude it is in their political interest to get benefits for their constituents from the federal government, for which they can then take credit.

In 2013, Ron DeSantis, a first-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives, opposed federal aid for the New York region for damages caused by Hurricane Sandy. The bill, DeSantis declared, was a boondoggle, a manifestation of a “put it on a credit card mentality.” As governor of Florida, he has blasted proponents of global warming because they “typically use that as a pretext to do a bunch of left-wing stuff… We are not doing any left-wing stuff.”

In the wake of Hurricane Ian, DeSantis has changed his tune. President Biden, he declared, “said all hands on deck, that he wants to be helpful. He said, whatever you need, ask us.” Florida’s U.S. Senators, Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, asked for “a robust and timely federal response, including through supplemental programs and funding… to rebuild critical infrastructure and public services capacity.”

A few days earlier, Sen. Scott (Rubio was absent) and all 16 Florida GOP members of the House of Representatives voted against legislation to fund the federal government through December 2022 that included $18.8 billion for FEMA to assist states with natural disasters. The bill, Scott explained, did not appropriate money for Hurricane Ian.

Passed by Congress in 2021, the Biden administration’s Infrastructure and Jobs Bill was supported by only 19 of 50 Republican Senators and 13 of 212 Republicans in the House. The legislation, which will not add to the federal deficit, allocates $1.2 trillion to upgrade, repair, or replace roads, bridges, railroads, public transportation, seaports, airports, lead pipes, and the power grid; expand access to broadband in rural areas and low-income neighborhoods; enhance water infrastructure in places suffering historic droughts; provide electric vehicle charging stations and electric school buses; and clean up superfund and brownfield sites, abandoned mines, antiquated oil and gas wells.

Republicans who voted against the bill are now praising — and implicitly taking credit for — the projects it has brought to their districts. Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), who deemed the legislation “a socialist plan full of crushing taxes and radical spending,” celebrated a “great day for Fort Worth,” when the Army Corps of Engineers announced funding for a $403 million flood control project in her state. Asked about her vote, Granger replied that she was not “against this project.”

Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa), another no vote, tweeted that she helped secure $829 million to help upgrade dams, a “game changer for Iowa’s agricultural industry and our Mississippi River communities.” When Democrats shot back that if she had had her way her neighbors would be underwater, Hinson issued a statement that said “since the bill was signed into law, this money was going to be spent regardless.”

Without Social Security, The Center on Budget and Policy Programs reported in April 2022, more than 22 million Americans (including 6.4 million adults under 65 and 1 million children) would have slipped into poverty. And yet, since the program’s inception in 1935, a sizable number of Congressional Republicans have opposed it.

In recent years, some Republicans have tried to “privatize” Social Security, raise the retirement age, and reduce the annual cost-of-living adjustment. In 2022, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) advocated that Congress be required every year to reauthorize Social Security in its current form, revise, or repeal it. Sen. Scott wants to sunset all social safety net programs every five years, including Social Security, Medicare (which enrolls 58 million Americans), and Medicaid (with 64 million beneficiaries).

Keenly aware that most Americans favor even more generous programs, however, Blake Masters, the Arizona GOP’s candidate for the U.S. Senate, walked back his suggestion that “we should just get the government out it.” And Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced that if Republicans control the Senate such proposals will not be part of “our agenda.” McConnell did not promise it would stay that way.

Self-proclaimed Republican deficit hawks, it’s worth noting, almost never put military spending on the chopping block. Even though the Pentagon’s annual budget is greater than the combined defense budgets of the next 10 countries. And, over the last two decades, the DOD has cancelled weapons programs on which tens of billions of dollars had already been spent.

Republicans also want a government that’s big enough to criminalize abortions, outlaw gay marriage, and prohibit discussions of gender identity or racial discrimination in public schools.

More often than not, it seems, bashing “big government” waste, fraud, and limitations on individual freedom is a tactic used by self-interested, hypocritical, partisan politicians.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”

Tags Ashley Hinson Biden Biden infrastructure bill Big Government Blake Masters Congressional Republicans disaster relief FEMA Hurricane Ian Hurricane Sandy Kay Granger Marco Rubio Medicare Mitch McConnell public support for big government Republican hypocrisy Republican Party Rick Scott Ron DeSantis Ron Johnson Ronald Reagan Social Security

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