So, Now Bigger Is Better?
By David S. Broder
Sunday, January 12, 2003; Page B01
When George W. Bush was running for president, he did not campaign as an enemy of the federal government. But he
claimed that he would limit its growth and power. And he derided his opponent, Al Gore, as an advocate of "big
In a speech to California Republicans, Bush said he shared former President Ronald Reagan's belief
that "you can't be for big government and big bureaucracy and still be for the little guy." He promised that if he won,
Washington would "give options, not orders. At its best," he added, "government can help us live our lives, but it must
never run our lives."
Bush didn't stop there. In placing himself squarely in the conservative tradition that
holds that limited government is the best guarantee of freedom, he called for a return to a concept of federalism
respectful of states' rights and local authority. When it comes to education, he said, he would fight any scheme that
would transfer power from parents and teachers to "some distant central office." Asked about the economy, he said he
would keep government modest, because "the surest way to make sure prosperity slows down is to expand the role and scope
and size of the federal government."
That was then. Now that Bush is running the federal government, its size
doesn't bother him so much. Two years after taking office, Bush is presiding over the biggest, most expensive federal
government in history. He has created a mammoth Cabinet department, increased federal spending, imposed new federal
rules on local and state governments, and injected federal requirements into every public school in
Meanwhile, the U.S. military is expanding too, and not only because it is scouring the world for Sept.
11-style threats. It now seeks to fulfill a more expansive vision of America's role that mirrors Bush's more expansive
vision of government in general. Gone is the Bush who spoke of "humility" in foreign affairs and warned against
"nation-building" and overextending America's military. Now the administration talks about meeting America's
"unparalleled responsibilities" as it maintains a quarter-million troops abroad, garrisons in more than two dozen
countries and smaller detachments in 114 others. As it does so, the administration must reinforce the military and
intelligence infrastructure here to help sustain missions abroad.
Money is one measure of the new era of big
government. Federal spending, measured as a share of the gross domestic product (GDP), declined every year from fiscal
1991, when the Cold War ended, through fiscal 2000, the final full year of the Clinton administration. It fell from 22.3
percent of GDP to 18.4 percent in that decade, but began edging back up in the first year of Bush's presidency and is
projected to hit 19.6 percent this year. Some of the Bush increases are tied to legislation adopted under Clinton, but
the Bush administration has not turned back the tide.
While the administration and Congress have fostered the
impression that the war against terrorism is to blame for rising federal spending, Fortune magazine writer Jeff Birnbaum
has observed that "only about a third of the additional spending this year can be attributed to the war on terror. The
rest is testament to a fact that predates Sept. 11: The era of big government has returned."
The growth of the
federal government's influence cannot be measured in terms of money alone. The promulgation of a sweeping set of
standards for America's schools has triggered a widening protest from state and local officials, who complain that the
Bush administration is interfering with their own education reform efforts and usurping what has traditionally been a
jealously guarded realm of state and local initiative. And this from the party that once vowed to eliminate the
The emerging blueprint for homeland security has also riled state officials. Its potential
for commandeering local public health and safety agencies has prompted the conservative Republican governor of Utah to
try to rally colleagues from both parties to turn back what he and others see as a genuine threat to the constitutional
balance of authority within the federal system. "Because the call for protecting our people is so powerful," says Gov.
Mike Leavitt (R), "we could be on the verge of remaking our whole system of government."
officials dismiss these criticisms as exaggerated and say that Bush has simply responded to changing circumstances and
urgent national needs. They note that the president has tried with considerable success to reduce the tax burden and
ease regulation of the environment and industries such as communications.
Nonetheless, the government that Bush
cedes to his eventual successor seems certain to be one that will be playing a more expansive, aggressive and intrusive
role than the very big government he inherited.
Take education. The hallmark of Bush's domestic policy has been
his drive to raise the standards and improve the performance of America's schools through a major piece of social
legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). It sounds noble enough, but the law has produced a tug of war. On one
side, there are those who want to set rigorous goals for reading and math, backed by stiff tests for every student. On
the other, there are those who fear such a regimen would stifle teachers' creativity, infringe on local control of
schools and threaten to label so many public schools as failures that support would build for private school vouchers.
That fight is raging more strongly than ever -- with many in the states saying that Big Brother in Washington is
winning. "Everything is tipping toward [federal] preemption," says Paul Houston, executive director of the National
Association of School Administrators, a major education group. "So you're getting a lot of friction and frustration and
some outright resistance."
A letter from Education Secretary Rodney Paige to state school superintendents last
October raised many hackles. While thanking those "who have accepted the challenge" of NCLB, he complained that "some
states have lowered the bar of expectations to hide the low performance of their schools." In what was taken as a clear
warning shot, Paige said, "Those who play semantic games or try to tinker with state numbers . . . stand in the way of
progress and reform. They are the enemies of equal justice and equal opportunity. They are apologists for failure. And
they will not succeed . . ."
A test case seems to be developing in Nebraska, an overwhelmingly Republican state
whose education commissioner, Doug Christensen, says, "I hear the rhetoric about local control and flexibility, but I
don't see that. What I see are regimentation and uniformity."
A recent meeting with Education Department officials
left Christensen balking at the requirement for annual reading and math tests for every student in the third through
eighth grades. "Our classes in those grades range from 15 to 18 students," he says. "Our teachers know how well every
child is doing and every school has its own system for measuring that. We don't want to impose an outside standard that
is not necessary. The responsibility for educating our kids is ours, and I am not going to defend some federal
requirement unless we think it is good for our kids."
Asked what he has heard from the federal officials,
Christensen replies: "They said, 'You have work to do.' "
There have been similar disputes in states ranging from
Vermont to Louisiana and from Michigan to North Carolina. "This is a fundamental shift," Houston says. "It is a huge
federal intrusion in an area that traditionally has been a matter of state and local responsibility. The American people
haven't realized it yet, because it came out of a Republican administration, from a group of people that normally says,
'Hands off. Keep the bureaucrats out.' "
Administration officials say that most states are cooperating. Sandy
Kress, a former White House education adviser who helped design NCLB, says, "this is designed to be hard. If there
weren't gnashing of teeth at this point, we would have missed the mark."
But the fact remains that Washington is
stepping further into the management of local schools than ever before. Ray Sheppach, executive director of the National
Governors Association, says, "What I see in education and in regulatory matters generally is continued preemption of
state authority. It's kind of like Nixon goes to China. The Democrats could never have done this kind of thing."
Homeland security is the newest arena of big government growth. The anti-terrorism campaign spawned the largest
bureaucracy Washington has seen since the birth of the Department of Defense -- the new Homeland Security Department.
Moreover, anti-terrorism has been used to justify bold intrusions into the privacy of individuals and extraordinary
security measures that tread upon some generally accepted rights.
Already, critics of the Justice Department have
charged that expanded wiretaps and the detention and arrest of aliens have violated civil rights. The American Civil
Liberties Union has been joined by such staunch conservatives as former House majority leader Dick Armey in expressing
alarm at the breadth of authority that Attorney General John Ashcroft has claimed in what Ashcroft calls an
"unrelenting" campaign against terrorism.
The Homeland Security Department also may threaten federal preemption of
some of the most basic functions of local and state government, including those of the police, public safety and public
health departments. "The further down you drill in this whole area of homeland security," says Utah's Leavitt, a
political ally of Bush, "the more potential you see for it recasting the whole federal system."
Leavitt says he
has been thinking about one of the most routine, ministerial functions of state government -- issuing driver's licenses.
"Until now, all we've had to do is to give an exam that satisfies us that you are competent to operate a motor vehicle
on the roads of Utah. But now a driver's license has become a national identity card. One of my aides went to the
airport with an expired driver's license and was not allowed to board the plane.
"Now the federal government wants
us to be able to certify that if we give you a driver's license, you really are who you say you are, you live where you
say you live and your birth date is what you claim it is. Then the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] will get
involved, and insist that we determine you are in the country legally. Pretty soon, our driver's license division has
become a federal agency."
Tom Ridge, the White House homeland security chief (soon to be head of the new
department), says he has sought to reassure Leavitt. "The executive order of the president assigned the Office of
Homeland Security to develop a national strategy for safeguarding the country -- not a federal strategy," Ridge says,
"and that means we have a strategic interest in developing and sustaining a working partnership with state and local
Still, Ridge says that as far as driver's licenses are concerned, states should standardize the
formats and procedures for issuing these documents. "There ought to be a minimum set of standards for what has become a
standard form of identification."
Leavitt fears that "the need for coordination will almost inevitably result in
centralization." Ridge concedes that if states do not comply voluntarily, a future Congress might threaten to withhold a
portion of the highway funds from the naysayers. "That is Plan B," he says.
A larger concern for Leavitt and
other governors is that the need for "inter-operability," the capacity of computer-driven information systems to share
records, will end up with Washington dictating what equipment local sheriffs or police chiefs must install and what
portion of the data they must share. "If the systems all lead to some computer in Washington, then local control is
eroded," Leavitt says.
Ridge says there will be national standards for information systems -- "that is an
important role for the department" -- but insists that states and local governments want guidance on what to buy. "They
will still be doing the job. They are the first responders."
Leavitt says history argues otherwise. Welfare
offices are local, he says, but for 60 years -- until the reform of 1996 -- "the federal government was really running
them, because it set all the rules and it furnished some of the money. The same thing could happen with homeland
Already examples are cropping up of federal preemption of traditional roles. Last Sunday, the New York
Times reported that many local health departments say they fear they will have to curtail services, such as cancer and
tuberculosis screening and children's dental examinations, in order to meet the demands of Bush's federal smallpox
There is a long history of Washington imposing its wishes on state and local governments,
through the rules it writes and the money it distributes. But Republicans generally have resisted that tendency as much
as Democrats have embraced it.
Bush as a candidate gave few hints that he would be different or that he would
extend the authority of the federal government both at home and overseas. But in all these areas -- from peacekeeping in
Kabul to school testing in Nebraska to health screening in Arizona -- the length of his reach is overriding the
conservative rhetoric of the Bush presidency.
Big government is back -- with a Republican label.
Broder has covered national politics for The Post since 1966. Staff researcher Brian Faler contributed to this
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
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