Government, big or small

President Obama recently unveiled a plan to reorganize and streamline government agencies. “No business,” the president said, "… would allow this kind of duplication or unnecessary complexity in their operations.… Why is it OK for our government?” Sound familiar?

It should. Obama’s proposal — a political ploy aimed at the fickle middle of American politics — is the most recent in a long line of presidential “efficiency” measures. Every president since Richard Nixon has offered something similar. None has delivered on the promise of smaller, more efficient government.

The tragedy here is not that these measures inevitably fail. Instead, it’s that these presidents’ anti-government stance panders to and fuels Americans’ mistrust of government.

A quick glance at history shows how these symbolic schemes amounted to little more than political shell games. Presidents have promised smaller, more efficient government, but — whether measured in terms of federal spending, the total number of federal agencies or the number of executive branch employees — government has continued to grow.


Nixon’s “silent majority” appeal was based on bringing government — too beholden to discrete electoral minorities — back to the majority. “The great danger,” Nixon presciently warned in 1971, "… is that this momentary disillusionment with government will turn into a more profound and lasting loss of faith.” To restore the silent majority’s faith in government, Nixon proposed his New Federalism policies, an effort to gut the bureaucracy and shore up local governments by sharing federal income tax revenue with mayors and governors rather than local branches of federal agencies.

As Nixon put it in 1972, “After many years in which power has been flowing away from those levels of government which are closest to the people, power will now begin to flow back to the people again.” Nixon’s reorganization plans, however, actually increased federal spending — by a minimum of $6 billion a year (about $31 billion in 2010 dollars). His goal was to empower local governments to deliver local services, but in doing so he made them even more beholden to the federal purse. Under Nixon, domestic spending grew from a little more than 10% of GDP to almost 14%.

Republicans aren’t the only ones who play this shell game. Though many think of Jimmy Carter as a failed liberal president, his 1976 presidential campaign was staked on small-government claims. On the campaign trail, Carter promised to shrink the number of federal agencies from 2,000 to 200. He loved to highlight his efforts as Georgia governor to streamline and reorganize the state’s bureaucracy. Like Obama, he promised to apply sound business principles to rationalizing government.

Carter’s reorganization plan for Georgia succeeded in reducing the number of agencies from about 300 to 30, but his programs increased the number of state workers from under 50,000 to almost 61,000. Carter also ballooned the budget by 55%. Georgia’s government hadn’t gotten smaller. Its workers simply huddled together under bigger umbrellas. And once he was president, Carter dumped his promise to slash federal agencies.

Ronald Reagan’s anti-government stance is well known. To be fair, the Teflon president’s version of New Federalism oversaw the first net decrease in domestic social spending in almost half a century. But Reagan’s cuts were more than offset by his borrowing and defense spending. Under the guise of anti-government rhetoric (“The federal treasury is a trust, not a gift shop.”), Reagan raised the debt ceiling 18 times, tripled the national debt (Carter added $483 billion to the debt; Reagan added $1.9 trillion) and increased federal spending by 60%. According to figures from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, between 1962 and 2010, of the 10 years with the largest executive branch payroll, seven occurred under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Whether pledging no new taxes (Bush I), or declaring dead the era of big government (Bill Clinton) or promising a more nimble if compassionate brand of government (Bush II), each president since Nixon has taken on big government, and nearly all have proposed some kind of streamlining policy.

That these efforts generally amounted to little is no great loss in itself. Indeed, many of these appeals (like Obama’s) were more about electoral politics than substantive change. The real loss is in how presidential rhetoric gradually overshadowed the positive roles each of these presidents found for government. For Nixon, it was delivering valued local public services; for Carter, it was stimulating the private market and protecting the poorest; for Reagan, it was national defense and education spending; and on and on.

None of these presidents had the courage to speak clearly and frame their increased spending in terms of the valuable purposes they each saw for government. More important, in their failure to deliver on smaller, more efficient government, they frustrated the political expectations they helped create.


Is it any wonder Americans today have less faith in government than ever?

Obama has shown flashes of transcending today’s bankrupt political debate about government’s size, a squabble that too often plays on Americans’ faith in government rather than their many expectations for it. Unlike his predecessors, he hasn’t yet boxed himself in with too much small-government speak.

Although his proposal might help him win the support of some independent voters or outflank a GOP Congress, the president risks further legitimizing our arbitrary and silly bickering about government’s size, stamping out the kind of substantive debate over how each party has defined good government. After all, though they all stoked anti-government sentiment, Obama’s predecessors found plenty of good uses for big government. Let’s talk about them.

Brent Cebul is a doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Virginia. His focus is on modern conservative governance.