WASHINGTON — Whether it's over health care, climate change or most other big Washington battles this year, Congress keeps debating the same underlying issue — is the federal government getting too big and intrusive?
The subject bitterly divides Republicans from Democrats, and the public's mood seems ambivalent. Polls show that public majorities think the government's rapidly growing cost is worrisome, yet most want better health care and curbs on global warming — but they're wary of giving government too much power to do either.
The success of those ventures in Washington could depend on how leaders frame the question during debate, said John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University.
"If you ask people, 'Do you want big government?' you get one answer," he said. "But if you say, 'Should the government have more control over the excesses of the marketplace?' you get a different one."
Even in this dismal economy, "there's no sense that the public has shifted and is more tolerant of a bigger role for government," said Michael Dimock, an associate director of the Pew Research Center, which has polled recently on the subject.
On the other hand, several surveys have shown that large segments of the public want the government to expand health care while curbing its costs, reign in business excesses and provide some safety net for the less fortunate.
This much is clear, said New Deal historian William Leuchtenburg: So far, 2009 hasn't seen a revolutionary change in public attitude toward the role of government in American life.
"There is nothing comparable to the New Deal this time," he said of the Depression-era recovery program.
The New Deal was everywhere. Its Federal Theatre had its own circus _with a young Burt Lancaster, later a Hollywood star, on the trapeze. The National Recovery Administration in the 1930s created "codes of fair competition" aimed at regulating a wide variety of industries, including burlesque shows (governed by 11 pages of rules) as well as makers of dog food, shoulder pads and other products.
Today's government expansion is more evolutionary than revolutionary, and shows signs it could stall. It almost did once already.
In December, Congress, despite support from President George W. Bush and Democratic leaders, was unable to pass auto bailout legislation, though Bush later tapped the Troubled Asset Relief Program, originally intended to help ailing financial institutions, to help Chrysler and General Motors.
Public concern about big government was one reason why climate change legislation, which passed the House of Representatives last month by a narrow margin, faces a tough road ahead in the Senate this summer. Any government-run health care system also is expected to be a tough sell.
Making those efforts harder is the fierce partisanship that's characterized this year's major debates.
A Pew Research Center survey of 3,013 people conducted March 31 to April 21 found that 72 percent of Republicans thought the government "controls too much of our daily lives," compared with 42 percent of Democrats.
During last week's global warming debate, Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., framed the climate change issue as another step toward too-big government.
"The federal government right now runs General Motors. The government has a huge financial equity stake in many of our financial institutions," Royce argued. "This Congress is relentlessly politicizing our economy.
Democrats fire back that they don't want to micromanage the economy, only to rein in questionable business practices and help their constituents in difficult times. They point to the $787 billion economic stimulus plan this year_ which got only three GOP Senate votes — as well as legislation to give consumer credit card holders strong new protections and to regulate tobacco.
"Change is always difficult, and because it's been so comprehensive, it has a lot of moving parts," said Rep. Paul W. Hodes, D-N.H., in an interview. Each step, he and other Democrats say, has been aimed at curing a specific ill.
The partisan gap is more pronounced than usual this year, partly because Democrats control the White House and Congress for the first time in 14 years and are pushing a broad agenda, and partly because in recent years, the two parties often teamed up to grow government.
No Child Left Behind, enacted in the Bush administration's first year, expanded the federal role in education. In 2003, a bipartisan majority approved Medicare's prescription drug program, which is expected to cost about $700 billion over 10 years. The 2005 highway bill, stuffed with special projects inserted by members of Congress, cost $295 billion.
"There's been a steady move in the direction of a larger role for the government for a long time," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.
Recent polling has shown that people are increasingly worried about the size of the record federal deficit, which under Obama's budget would hit 13 percent of Gross Domestic Product this fiscal year, dropping to 9.9 percent next year. The last time it reached double digits was during the World War II years of 1942-45; during the New Deal, its high point was 4.76 percent in 1936.
"People look at the budget today and they're scared of it,' said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
Today's politicians also vividly remember the political lessons of 30 years ago. When the economy faltered in the late 1970s, Ronald Reagan successfully made government the enemy and beat incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Even Democrat Bill Clinton declared in 1996 that "the era of big government is over."
At the same time, however, Clinton's next sentence proved prescient in describing the public's ambivalence, when he said, "We cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves."
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