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$1.5 Trillion for the Drug War? 5 Outrageous Areas of Gov't Spending That Should be Cut Instead of Social Services

If Republicans want to pretend they're for less government, let's force them to get serious about it.

A Mexican soldier stands guard at a marijuana field, in Los Algodones community, Culiacan, Sinaloa State, Mexico on January 30, 2012.


Let’s assume that the New York Times was right this week when it asserted that in 2013, “the only issue that truly unites Republicans is a commitment to shrinking the federal government.” Even though there’s  ample evidence that the GOP doesn’t actually want to shrink the government, let’s nonetheless assume that Republicans are trying to rhetorically brand themselves to the concept of small government, past votes be damned. And let’s assume that  gerrymandering means the GOP will control at least one house of congress for the remainder of the Obama presidency.

Does that, then, mean the next four years will automatically be mired in stalemate? Not necessarily, if Democrats call Republicans’ bluff and use the GOP’s small government argument for progressive ends. Indeed, with House Speaker John Boehner showing a penchant for  violating the so-called Hastert Rule and allowing transpartisan bills to pass, the “small government” argument could be a perfect instrument for congressional Democrats to pick off just enough Republican votes to pass meaningful legislation in five key areas:

1. Ending – or at least limiting – the Drug War: To know the Drug War has been a disastrous failure at the policy level, take 10 seconds and  look at this animated graph. And it hasn’t just been any run-of-the-mill policy failure involving  unjust incarcerationsnegative health consequences and little success in combating drug addiction – it’s also been an extremely expensive Huge Government boondoggle. Yes, depending on how you count it, government has spent somewhere between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion on the Drug War over the last 40 years. According to the conservative  Reason magazine, the Drug War now costs about $120 billion a year in direct expenditures. With Republicans showing a willingness to at least entertain questions about America’s existing drug policy, the “small government” argument could be the key to ending America’s longest war.

2. Reducing the military budget: As recently as last May, Republican leaders were still trying to  add money to a defense budget that is already one of the largest in American history. But in just a few months, austerity mania opened up the real possibility that progressives have a chance to achieve their goal of a smaller Pentagon. First, the GOP was split on whether to simply accept the sequestration’s Defense Department cuts, and then the GOP officially  endorsed those cuts, to the point where senior  Republican Sen. John Cornynis now making the public case that the cuts will not harm America’s ability to defend itself.

Cornyn, of course, is absolutely right. Even if the sequestration cuts are fully enacted, the military budget will  still be bigger in real dollars than it was throughout much of the Cold War. Thus, unless you want to argue that the nuclear-armed Soviet Union was less of a threat than al Qaeda, or that Ronald Reagan was weak on national security, the numbers mean a Democratic small government argument applied to the Pentagon will not inherently endanger the country.

3. Limiting regressive tax expenditures: Speaking of entitlement programs, economist Jared Bernstein and his colleagues at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities correctly identify tax expenditures – aka spending programs baked into the tax code – as among most regressive Huge Government entitlements out there (and yes, as this  CBPP paper shows, that term “entitlement” is a perfect word to describe them). Even tax expenditures that seem progressive like the home mortgage deduction often end up being  regressive in practice. They are also  incredibly expensive, costing taxpayers more every year than big-ticket items such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security that are often labeled “big government.” Limiting these tax expenditures, then, is a perfect “small government” crusade.

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