If Donald Rumsfeld were caught campaigning for George W. Bush on government time — which happens to be a violation of federal law — it would have been front-page news for a month. But after the US Office of Special Counsel reported that Kathleen Sebelius was guilty of campaigning for Democrats in her official capacity as health and human services secretary, it would have taken a team of hounds to find the buried notices. Network news and major newspapers pretty much shrugged and bought the administration’s party line: Nothing to see here; please move along.
In a way, you have to marvel at the press corps’ collective determination not to cover something. The White House press secretary wasn’t even asked about Sebelius’ lawbreaking until a week after the fact.
The media do a great job of not covering what they don’t want to cover. And even when they make the effort — as with the endless replays of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” tape — they find a way to avoid the substance. The video story quickly became a tale about who filmed it, who leaked it, and whether the campaign had lost momentum. At all costs, reporters and analysts avoided the basic issue: Should we be bothered by the fact that nearly half of American taxpayers pay no income taxes at all? Is it a problem that a roughly equal number receive direct benefits from the federal government?
Hoping to cut the debate off at the pass, liberals are quick to point out that these figures omit payroll tax payments. But payroll taxes are unique; they are dedicated to funding Medicare and Social Security independently from the rest of the budget. In fact, the universality of those taxes is one reason the corresponding programs enjoy broad and bipartisan support.
Payroll taxes do not fund national defense, national parks, or education. Payroll taxes do not support VA hospitals, food stamps, the EPA, or thousands of other programs. A worker who pays nothing in income taxes has little vested interest in how much we spend on these programs and whether it is wasted.
This is not a question of taxing the elderly or working poor. Set aside these groups, and more than half of the non-income-tax-paying public remains. The argument isn’t that everyone in this group should pay high taxes; it’s that many should be paying something. Throughout the 1990s the number of filers paying no income taxes remained below 35 percent.
The spending problem is equally fundamental. A budget designed to distribute direct benefits to 50 or 60 percent of the population is simply not sustainable; and at current trends, we will reach that level in three or four years — not 10 or 20.
Again, defenders of this payment explosion declare that many of those recipients are beneficiaries of Medicare and Social Security. (Like the “invisible shield” defense in a game of schoolyard tag, these programs pop up whenever there’s nothing else to say.) This misses the point. These two entitlements are designed to be segregated from discretionary spending. They certainly need to be reformed and made solvent for the long term, but the growing number of Americans receiving federal payments has been driven by other parts of the budget.
The last decade has seen dramatic increases in the number of programs and total spending, and ever-lower standards for eligibility. During the past four years, the number of Americans receiving Social Security Disability has increased by 15 percent; the number receiving food stamps has grown by 50 percent. Today, health care subsidies are available in New York state for families earning $75,000 per year.
The proliferation of programs and payments doesn’t just undermine the budget; it fractures our national identity. Today, we all appear to politicians as part of one spending constituency or another: students, veterans, farmers, and on down the line. A nation once defined by its commitment to individual freedom and self-reliance seems destined to drift ever closer to the economic mediocrity of the European social welfare state.
Romney’s off-the-cuff remarks were clumsy by his own admission. Roughly 46 percent of the electorate will vote for the Democrat — and a similar proportion for the Republican — no matter what. Of course candidates should never stop trying to communicate with the opposition. Yet that doesn’t change the fact that the trends Romney spoke about are real. They are unsustainable. And that’s something the press doesn’t want to discuss.
John E. Sununu is a former Republican senator from New Hampshire. His father, former governor John H. Sununu, is a surrogate for the Mitt Romney campaign.