The Reagan Years: An Assessment; CUTTING RED TAPE
On the hustings in 1980, Ronald Reagan struck a responsive chord when he promised to ''get government off the backs of the people.'' Across the country the American people - from ordinary taxpayers burdened by growing taxes to businesses, factories, and colleges snarled in federal red tape - seemed to be in the mood for an assault on ''big government.''Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Three years later not even White House officials claim that the Reagan administration has made much of a dent in shifting the balance of power from the federal government to the rest of society. The broad facts are:
* Overall federal spending has been rising. It was 23 percent of the gross national product (GNP), the value of the nation's output of goods and services, in fiscal 1981. In fiscal '83, federal spending grew to 25 percent of GNP.
* The welfare state is basically intact.
* Progress has been made in freeing up once-protected industries, such as the airlines, trucking, and railroads. But regulatory reform in the area of health, safety, and environment has slowed.
* The administration has sharply reduced federal involvement in state and local affairs, forcing states and communities to look to their own resources. But the dollar amount of federal aid to states remains huge.
* Federal employment has been cut only slightly.
While there is general agreement that President Reagan has not led anything approximating a ''revolution'' in reducing the size and role of government, he has forced a dialogue on the subject and helped change attitudes.
''Reagan has signaled to states that they cannot count on the feds for more aid,'' says John Shannon, assistant director of the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. ''He has fostered a 'do it yourself' climate, and that is healthy.''
''There has been only a moderate change,'' says Stephen Wayne, a presidential scholar at George Washington University. ''Reagan is still in the mainstream of big government. In fact, he has actually centralized power in order to impose spending cuts and deregulation.''
''The pendulum has swung hardly at all,'' says historian Robert Nisbet of the American Enterprise Institute.
Another specialist, Richard P. Nathan of Princeton University, remarks: ''Reagan has changed the rhetoric and dynamics of policymaking. Now the legislative battles are not over how much to increase spending but simply over how much to cut.''
To be sure, Mr. Reagan put a heavy ax to federal spending. But in effect, he shifted federal expenditures from nondefense sectors to the military. Sharp cuts were made in civilian programs, mainly in the social-welfare area. But the accelerated buildup of the military forces meant unprecedented peacetime increases in defense spending: rising from $160 billion in fiscal 1981, or 24 percent of the total federal budget, to an estimated $235 billion in fiscal 1984 , or 28 percent of the budget.
Even in civilian areas the administration managed merely to reduce the rate of spending, but not the absolute amounts in real terms. Spending on means-tested (i.e., so-called welfare) programs, for instance, rose from $55 billion in fiscal 1981 to an estimated $61 billion for fiscal 1984. It was in fact preservation of the New Deal safety net that enabled the President to ride out the recession without social disruption. Meanwhile, other entitlements, including social security, medicare, veterans' benefits - those payments that largely benefit the middle class - have so far escaped serious pruning: They shot up from $250 billion in 1981 to $318 for '84.
''Reagan has not been able to be as conservative as he liked because Congress would not let him cut,'' says presidential scholar Betty Glad of the University of Illinois. ''He's not been able to do much about turning the clock back on the welfare state.''