Toomey: welfare spending too generous

Posted: March 08, 2013

WASHINGTON - Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) took aim at federal spending Thursday, at one point singling out welfare programs he said had grown so generous that some Americans find they benefit from government aid "as long as you don't work very much."

Less than 24 hours after dining with President Obama and expressing hope that they could find "common ground" for a broad budget deal, Toomey used a 20-minute speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation to argue that shrinking government was the key to creating economic vitality, even if it required Republicans to "fight on" in repeated political battles like the one that just ended over the so-called sequester.

Toomey's speech drew stark contrasts with a president who has advocated for an active government that creates opportunities. Perhaps nowhere were the differences more pronounced than when the senator called for a debate on "the negative, unintended consequences" of welfare initiatives that he called "transfer-payment programs."

"We all want to have a safety net that works for the people who need us, but we've had a huge proliferation of these programs, we've had huge expansions in eligibility for these programs.

"We've had huge increases in funding for these programs, and the net effect now is that there are people who discover that the government will provide food, shelter, health care, education, transportation, cash, a very long list of all the things you need, as long as you don't work very much, you don't make very much," Toomey said. "It creates a huge economic disincentive."

The comments come months after the GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, saw his campaign derailed by his own taped words about the "47 percent" of Americans "who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it."

Toomey, a leading voice among fiscal conservatives, acknowledged that he was treading on a politically sensitive topic, one he said was prone to distortion. But he said government aid had grown so generous that beneficiaries have to increase their income "enormously to offset what you're going to lose in these benefits."

"We should really have a debate about the impact that the cumulative effect of all these programs has on the very people they're meant to help," he said.

His statement came in the context of a speech arguing that cutting government spending is the key to fostering economic opportunity. Toomey also countered the idea that the recent sequester cuts will do enormous harm.

"The idea that economic growth depends on ever-growing government is exactly backwards," Toomey said. "The more we limit the size and scope and cost of government, the more we free up the private sector to invest, to grow, to take risk."

Toomey said Republicans need to explain the connection between smaller government and public prosperity. He spoke of being "haunted" by the party's failure to respond to Obama's campaign line that GOP policies had brought on the economic crisis.

"In my view, it was the federal government and the Federal Reserve that by far and away contributed the most to the financial crisis," Toomey, a former derivatives trader, said, referring to both the recession and the slow recovery. "Without their failed policies it wouldn't have happened."

The talk at an iconic home for conservative thought - now headed by tea party leader and former Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), whom Toomey called one of his "heroes in the Senate" - came one day after Obama dined with Toomey and 11 other Republican senators as the president sought to build support for a broad deficit-reduction deal.

"I don't see any contradiction or any conflict" between the Wednesday dinner and Thursday speech, Toomey said later in an interview.

Obama, though, is seeking a "balanced" mix of new revenue and targeted spending cuts to reduce the deficit, and has argued that government investment is a key to economic recovery. "We can't cut our way to prosperity," he often says.

Toomey said that while he supported tax reform, the changes should not increase revenue, presenting another difference with Obama. Instead, new revenue would arrive from the economic growth that came from lower rates and a simpler tax code, he told The Inquirer.

Even as much of Washington - not to mention the public - has grown exhausted of budget conflicts, Toomey told his audience it was important "that we fight on every one of these battles" to push for less spending.

"It's not just because we love green eyeshades. . . . This is about something bigger," he said. Growing up in the Ronald Reagan era, when taxes were cut and regulations trimmed, he said, he had "all kinds of opportunities."

"As you were graduating from college, it was not a question of could you get a job, it was, 'Which job offer are you going to accept?'" Toomey said. He questioned whether today's graduates could say the same.

"We could have the policies that would enable that, but not on the path that we're on," he said. "This fiscal disaster that we have under way right now is holding back our economy."

Contact Jonathan Tamari at Follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari. Read his blog 'Capitol Inq' at

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