Border Security: The Type of Spending Republicans Like

PHOTO: TeaSaul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Demonstrators with the Tea Party protest the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) targeting of the Tea Party and similar groups during a rally called 'Audit the IRS' outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, June 19, 2013.

Democrats like big government and spending. Republicans do not. We know that because Republicans have told us over and over.

But it's pretty clear things aren't that simple.

Republicans are actually fine with government expansion and increased spending, as long as it's devoted to things like military or border security. It's the entitlement programs that get them worked up.

We saw a couple of great examples this week with the debates over high-profile agriculture and immigration bills.

Let's start with the farm bill, which was defeated in the House on Thursday.

The farm bill is a huge piece of legislation that gets passed every five years or so. There are lots of nods to special interests in the legislation; this year's version was projected to cost $940 billion over 10 years.

Food stamps and nutrition programs for low-income families are the biggest expense in the bill, clocking in at $743.9 billion. Republicans didn't like that.

When the bill was on the floor in the House yesterday, Republicans decided it wasn't palatable, and tacked on an amendment that would have allowed states to increase the work requirements needed to receive food stamps.

The amendment was a so-called "poison pill" for Democrats, who wouldn't vote for the bill. It was defeated 234 to 195, with only 24 Democrats supporting it.

You could say that was a victory for fiscal conservatives: They repelled a huge amount of new government spending, even though much of it would have gone to feeding hungry Americans.

Now let's look at immigration reform.

A bill to revamp the country's immigration system is currently being debated in the Senate. It is expected to pass that house of Congress, since it has had the support of most Democrats and a half-dozen Republicans.

But the bill's sponsors wanted more Republicans on board, to give the legislation some momentum heading into the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

To gain conservative support, the "Gang of Eight" that drafted the bill made a deal with two Republican senators to add more security on the U.S.-Mexico border. The deal would double the size of Border Patrol, increasing its staff from 21,394 agents last year to 40,000.

The extra border agents alone would add $30 billion to the cost of the immigration bill. After that, the bill would mandate at least $12.5 billion to build a border fence and create a border security plan, with the possibility for more spending if certain benchmarks aren't met down the road.

Those dollar amounts aren't so crazy in the larger picture. Nonpartisan analysts say the immigration bill would actually make money by collecting new revenue from immigrants and their employers, slashing the federal deficit by upwards of a trillion dollars over 20 years. So there's room to add some costs.

But it makes little sense for small-government, fiscally conservative Republicans to spend billions to hire new federal agents -- especially when apprehensions of border-crossers have dropped off significantly in recent years.

That's because the party's small-government message usually doesn't apply to military operations and the contractors who facilitate them. Think of President George W. Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: They weren't cheap.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said on Friday that the border-security spending in the Republican immigration deal "reads like a Christmas wish list for Halliburton."

"I'm sure there are federal contracting firms high-fiving at the prospect of all of the spending," Leahy said.

While the border-security amendment was sponsored by two Republicans -- Sens. Bob Corker (Tennessee) and John Hoeven (North Dakota) -- it hasn't been formally added to the immigration bill yet, so we can't be sure how many Republicans will support it.

But the difference in attitude is clear: Spending on guards at the border is okay. Spending on food stamps is not.

Republicans are trying to rebrand, to get the message out that theirs isn't exclusively a party for white people. Yet their tone when discussing the U.S.'s southern border sounds like they will do whatever it takes to make sure no more Latin Americans cross illegally. And they're willing to back it up with billions in federal dollars while they're balking at food programs for low-income families.