Government Handouts? Just Say ‘No’

Published March 12, 2010

If politicians are addicted to giving handouts to the American people, it’s because the American people are addicted to receiving them. Just ask Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY), who has barely survived furious attacks from Democrats and Republicans for defending fiscal responsibility.

This is the fundamental reason government spending is out of control. It won’t be reduced until Americans renounce the handouts, let politicians know they don’t want them, and force politicians to internalize this concept.

It amounts to a complete rethinking of the role of government in our lives.

It’s easy—and not unfair—to blame politicians for extravagant spending. Congress last week passed the so-called “pay-go” bill—requiring government to have the money to pay for programs before it enacts them. Then Congress immediately avoided pay-go to pass an “emergency” appropriations bill extending unemployment compensation and other handouts, including the “doc fix” to increase Medicare payments to doctors. This issue is of grave concern to seniors who might not get health care because doctors can’t afford to treat them.

Bunning blocked the bill for two days, correctly pointing out government should have the money before spending it. He was excoriated by Republicans and Democrats alike. They knew their constituents would go ballistic if denied these government handouts.

People laughed approvingly when President Ronald Reagan said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.'” But Americans are not laughing now. The availability of government benefits to a few particularly needy types of individuals has morphed into a general belief that this is exactly the role of government.

Politicians get this. As President Barack Obama said recently regarding health care, “The American people want to know if it’s still possible for Washington to look out for their interests and their future.” Numerous other Democrats said this week they support the president’s health care bill because the role of government is to “help people.”

Thus it was revealed this week that unemployment and Social Security payments for the first time equaled individual income tax payments—meaning unprecedented numbers of people rely on the government. Government’s tentacles extend deeply into our lives in other ways. Farmers have become dependent on subsidies, schools on federal grants, states on federal highway money, and cities on federal low-income housing construction funds.

Such federal spending is almost always viewed as “free money” because it doesn’t come directly from local taxpayers but instead from all the taxpayers in the nation. But that means all of us.

Then there’s the question of “pork” spending, widely condemned except in the beneficiary communities. There, Congressmen get kudos for “bringing home the bacon.”

Entitlements, pork, and grants are insidious because they feed expectations the federal government is there to “help people.” But it’s not.

Our national government is supposed to be based on the principle of subsidiarity, which means it should be doing only the things that cannot be done locally—such as coining money, providing for the national defense, running the post office, and regulating interstate commerce. It shouldn’t pay farmers not to grow things, fund education, or pay for private housing units.

If we are to regain control over government spending, politicians must be disciplined. But Americans also must be disciplined and willing to sacrifice. We must all “just say no” to entitlements.

Maureen Martin ([email protected]), an attorney, is senior fellow for legal affairs at The Heartland Institute.