"Fiscal conservative” is one of those terms used by politicians of all sorts to describe themselves, without any real justification. Parroted mindlessly from one news cycle to the next by major media outlets, that phrase is often used to mislead the public about the priorities and policies favored by those who claim to embody budgetary prudence.
Consider the Democrats in the Blue Dog caucus, who constantly trumpet their fiscal conservatism and enjoy hearing that claim echoed in the media, especially now, when they are threatening to block health care reform. The Blue Dogs don’t like the public option for national health insurance; they bemoan the estimated trillion-dollar cost of covering everyone; and they zealously defend the prerogatives of the private insurance industry and the pharmaceutical manufacturers (who coincidentally give them millions of dollars in contributions). When it comes to spending money on the health of uninsured or underinsured constituents, the Blue Dogs worry about every penny.
But when the budget debate turns to military spending, the voices of the Blue Dogs suddenly turn sweetly indulgent. Confronted with the gross waste of taxpayer dollars on Pentagon boondoggles, including weapons programs that are outdated or simply don’t work, these fierce budget watchdogs lose their bark and bite. But they never lose their appetite for useless contracting that brings money to their own districts.
The F-22 fighter plane, touted as the most advanced military aircraft in the world, offers a fine example of this syndrome. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is trying to cut the F-22 program because the planes don’t function very well, aren’t needed in the foreseeable future and cost nearly $400 million each. In a speech he delivered on July 17 about the need to reform the defense budget, the exasperated defense chief said: “Every defense dollar diverted to fund excess or unneeded capacity—whether for more F-22s or anything else—is a dollar that will be unavailable to take care of our people, to win the wars we are in, to deter potential adversaries and to improve capabilities in areas where America is underinvested and potentially vulnerable.”
But his pleas for fiscal sanity have been consistently ignored by Blue Dog Democrats as well as Republicans, who have joined forces to save the F-22. Among the proud ringleaders of this campaign is the Georgia Democrat Jim Marshall, whose House district happens to include contractors with deep interests in the jet program. Unconcerned with ever-increasing cost overruns or questions about the aircraft’s safety and usefulness, Mr. Marshall recently corralled enough votes of his fellow Blue Dogs to save the F-22 program in a committee showdown.
Indeed, Mr. Marshall is typical of the Blue Dog mentality in his enthusiasm for useless military spending. He is an outspoken advocate of the missile defense program—perhaps the biggest waste of money ever undertaken by government, because it doesn’t work as advertised and almost certainly never will—at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars so far. As far as the Blue Dogs and their Republican allies are concerned, there is hardly ever such a thing as a wasteful military contract—and certainly never in their own districts. The United States now spends on defense roughly the total amount spent by all the other countries in the world combined, yet the fiscal conservatives rarely ever find programs worth cutting. We also spend more per capita on health care than most developed nations, yet our politicians cannot figure out how to make that huge expenditure pay for universal care, although every other wealthy nation does it.
So whenever someone describes the Blue Dogs as fiscally conservative because they oppose health care reform, remember how promiscuously they spend our money on projects that are far more wasteful and far less likely to benefit anyone, except the contractors who donate to their campaign coffers. Remember that self-righteous posturing over spending has very little to do with saving public money or serving the nation’s greatest needs. When politicians say they’re fiscally conservative, chances are they are anything but.