Don’t look now, but the era of big government may be returning. It’s slowly sneaking up on us, but both the present and the future shows that its return may be inevitable.
A generation ago, President Bill Clinton famously declared an end to the era of big government in his January 1996 State of the Union speech. Four days later, Clinton repeated his pledge about the end of big government in his weekly radio address while calling for a balanced budget as the status quo. That call came the day after Congress ended a government shutdown that had as its purpose a meaningful cut in the size of federal bureaucracies.
At the time, Clinton had to prepare for his re-election campaign after taking a beating in the 1994 midterms when Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. Then-President Clinton adopted a strategy of “triangulation,” attempting to co-opt Republican priorities and messaging so as to re-establish himself as the nation’s political leader. Co-opting Republican distaste for big government gave Clinton some cover as he maneuvered his way into re-election.
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Regardless of Clinton’s intent, the Republican Congress managed to make significant cuts in federal employment after the 1994 revolution. When Newt Gingrich took the gavel as Speaker in 1994, the federal government employed 3,038,000 people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By the end of the Clinton presidency in 2000, that number had dropped to 2,741,000, a reduction of nearly 10 percent.
When Democrats won back control of Congress in January 2007, federal employment had drifted down even further to 2,707,000. It was the smallest federal workforce (excluding decennial censuses) since the launch of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society heralded the era of big government.
After the financial crisis of 2007-8, the federal government almost immediately began expanding, thanks to the stimulus program proposed by President Barack Obama and passed by fellow Democrats in Congress. In the previous two years, Democrats had added 65,000 to the federal rolls, and at the end of his first two years, Obama added another 79,000. A series of budget standoffs with Republicans after they took back control of the House rolled back the new expansion of the federal workforce.
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However, big government had not ended for good. Instead, it simply bided its time until conditions became ripe for its rebirth. And that time may have already arrived.
Last week, the BLS noted a new upsurge in federal hiring. The federal workforce has once again gone above 2.8 million, the first time it has reached that level since the sequester of the 2013 budget agreement. July’s preliminary employment report shows 33,000 more federal workers than a year ago. It’s a gain of almost 80,000 since the post-sequester low in May 2014. Just the addition alone would rank the federal government in the top ten privately-held employers in the US.
That expansion has not come in a vacuum, either. This weekend, The New York Times hailed the outgoing president as “one of the most prolific authors of major regulations in presidential history.” In a valediction to Obama, Binyamin Applebaum and Michael Shear declare that Obama once had “deep misgivings about executive power,” but that he had spent almost eight years using his executive authority to insert “the United States government more deeply into American life.”
Applebaum and Shear blame Republican Congresses for Obama’s reliance on regulation and unilateral action, but admit that “once Mr. Obama got the taste for it, he pursued his executive power without apology, and in ways that will shape the presidency for decades to come.”
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No kidding. One only need to look at the signature legislation that will forever bear his name, Obamacare. It aimed for the most personal of all intrusions into the lives of citizens – healthcare decisions – and forced Americans to engage in insurance markets on his terms. Health and Human Services has passed a deluge of regulations to put Obamacare into place, including the mandate that employers provide free contraception to their employees regardless of whether they have religious objections. Obamacare has injected the federal government into the ledger of every business and forced every business owner to be part of the decisions made in the bedrooms of its employees.
The bad news is that the expansion of government, both in size and in impact, is likely to grow no matter the outcome of the presidential election. Republican nominee Donald Trump has largely dispensed with the smaller-government priorities normally championed by its presidential candidates. His immigration policies alone will require significant expansion of the federal government, but Trump’s declaration that conservatism is irrelevant makes his approach clear. His argument that he alone can save the US and that he plans to use his executive power to get things accomplished promise even bigger and more intrusive government, rather than rolling both trends back.
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If Trump signals staying the course, then Hillary Clinton’s campaign shouts “ramming speed” on big-government momentum. The Democratic nominee has promised to double down on Obama’s executive orders on immigration, which have already been suspended by courts. The former First Lady wants to impose more regulation on gun ownership, political speech, and wants a massive expansion of the regulatory regime to “fight against environmental injustice.” Clinton also declares that she will “defend and expand the Affordable Care Act,” promising to expand federal initiatives on a number of fronts in service to a regulatory system that has almost collapsed the health-insurance industry already.
And so the era of big government returns – with a vengeance. The only question, at least for the next four years, is whose hands will be on its levers and whether the abuses to come will finally awaken Americans to the dangers that concentration of power holds.