Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/The President on Economy
President McKinley's inaugural address has been received by his own party with warm applause, and by fair-minded citizens not of his party with hearty praise of some of its utterances and with respectful and kindly criticism of others. There is, however, one point in it which seems to have failed to attract the attention and to obtain the commendation it deserves. In discussing the subject of government finance the President said: “Economy is demanded in every branch of the government at all times, but especially in periods like the present of depression in business and distress among the people. The severest economy must be observed in all public expenditures, and extravagance stopped whenever it is found and prevented wherever in the future it may be developed.” And further on he added, “The depressed condition of industry on the farm and in the mine and factory has lessened the ability of the people to meet the demands upon them, and they rightfully expect that not only a system of revenue shall be established that will secure the largest income with the least burden, but that every means will be taken to decrease, rather than increase, our public expenditures.”
President McKinley certainly uttered these sentiments in perfect sincerity. Neither would he have done so had he not seen an urgent reason for it. He had in mind the vicious practices for some time in vogue. He virtually denounced the reckless extravagance that has of late been generally prevailing. Nor can he have been in doubt as to where the responsibility for that extravagance rests. Certainly President Cleveland was not responsible, for he never failed to do all in his power to stem the reckless tide, and exposed himself to unmeasured obloquy for so doing. Neither were the Democrats in Congress alone responsible, although they unquestionably shared the guilt. No fair-minded observer of current events will deny that the Republicans who began the series of “billion Congresses,” and who controlled the last House of Representatives and the Senate, bear the greatest part of that responsibility. It was, therefore, mainly to the Republicans in Congress that President McKinley addressed the reproof and the admonition. What will they answer? What they answered when President Cleveland addressed to them similar admonitions we know. They treated them as stale commonplaces to be contemptuously repelled. They told the President that they were “tired of this kind of impertinent lecturing,” and then went on voting down his vetoes and spending the people's money right and left with a recklessness hardly knowing any bounds.
Mr. Cannon, the chairman of the Committee of Appropriations of the late House of Representatives, tries in vain to shift the responsibility upon the late Democratic administration, on the ground that the estimates submitted to Congress by the departments asked even for more money than was afterwards granted; for every well-informed person knows that the estimates, being made on the basis of existing practices, often contain many items which the heads of departments themselves do not approve of, and which they hope to see cut down or thrown out. It is equally useless to suggest as a remedy for the prevailing extravagance, which he admits, a different arrangement of the appropriation bills and the exclusion from them of private claims. The rules of the House and of the Senate have not been the real cause of the disease, and a mere reform of those rules, however desirable, will not be a sufficient remedy. The true cause has been the prevalence of the spirit of small politics among our members of Congress — their eager endeavor to win cheap popularity be getting appropriations to be expended in their districts or States, whether useful or not; or to make themselves “solid” with this or that class of people by putting public money into their pockets; or to give their party control of large public expenditures which may be turned to its advantage; or to exhibit themselves as glorious patriots by providing for costly and superfluous armaments. Hence the scandals of the river and harbor bills, squandering millions for absurd schemes; hence the large sums spent for public buildings in places where they are unnecessary; hence the pension bills going far beyond the just and generous provision for our war veterans which every good citizen is in favor of, and serving more to incite fraud and to enrich scheming pension attorneys than to support worthy defenders of the country; hence the lavish appropriations for war-ships which we do not need, many of which will be rendered obsolete by new contrivances almost as soon as their construction is finished, and which eventually will call for a large increase of our naval force in officers and men, thus entailing heavy expense for the future. Such is the cause of the extravagance which President McKinley denounces as too heavy for the people to bear, and which he admonishes Congress to supplant with the “severest economy.” It is very evident that this evil cannot be remedied by a mere change of rules, ever so wise. It will require a change of spirit.
It is not improbable that the influence which worked for wastefulness before will also be potent in the present Congress. If the President means to act according to his words, the struggle will begin at once. He will find, as many of his predecessors have found, that the most difficult task of an Executive mindful of his responsibilities is not so much to baffle his opponents as to restrain his party friends. Indeed, it is by giving due heed to the criticism of the opposition and by denying unrighteous demands coming from his friends that the character of the man in power has to prove itself worthy of public confidence. This is the true test. At the threshold of his administration President McKinley may be met by a trial apt to be decisive for his whole official term. President Cleveland declined to sign three appropriation bills passed by the late Congress, because they were full of just that extravagance which President McKinley has so sharply arraigned; and a fourth failed to pass because the two Houses could not agree upon some schemes of expenditure. It is devoutly to be wished that the Republicans in Congress, moved by President McKinley's earnest appeal for economy, will expurgate those appropriation bills accordingly. But what if instead of doing so, they send the bills to him for approval substantially as the late Congress left them? If the President signs them, and thus yields to the first attack, the consequences will be easy to foretell. The jobbers in and around Congress will at once conclude that President McKinley's vigorous plea in behalf of severe economy was, after all, nothing but talk, uttered to tickle the popular ear, without any stern resolution behind it. Every schemer for local jobs, every ringster, every corruptionist, every hunter after cheap local popularity, will take heart; the rush for appropriations will increase from year to year; and as, in consequence of the first manifestation of weakness on his part, the tide of extravagance rises, the President will be less and less able to make head against it. And what will become then of that “economy which is demanded at all times, but especially in periods of depression in business and distress among the people”?
President McKinley's first acts in this respect will go far in determining the tone of his whole administration. If at its very beginning he resolutely puts his foot upon every appropriation bill providing for any unnecessary expenditure of money, and gives his party friends to understand that he may be counted upon to do so again and again as often as similar occasions arise, he will have done more to stop extravagance and to establish the “severe economy” he advocates than can possibly be accomplished by any change of the rules, or by the most impressive preaching. Just now, during the honey-moon of his Presidency, he can begin more easily than at any other time. And it is of the utmost consequence to himself as well as to the country that he should. A right start is half the race. To be sure, there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth among the little band of beneficiaries. But he may depend upon it that the best men in Congress will stand by him, and every good citizen in the land, whether Republican or not, will clap his hands and say, “Well done!”