- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 31, 2006

As a resident of Duke Cunningham’s congressional district in California, I have seen close-up the tragic results of political corruption. A good man fell victim to the temptation of easy money. The lobbying scandals and excessive use of earmarks for favored constituents suggests that congressional Republicans have lost their way.

Many have joined most Democrats to become big spenders, more interested in getting rich and re-elected than in carrying out the mandate of Republican voters for a small and ethical government, fiscal responsibility and a balanced budget.

On ethics and spending, there is no visible difference between Democrats and Republicans. Both seem determined to bring home more bacon, regardless of the budget deficit. The earmarks that add money for specific projects without undergoing committee scrutiny are just the most visible element of the problem. Some 15,000 earmarks, such as the Alaskan bridge to nowhere, are adding billions of dollars to federal spending every year. The leaders of both parties endorse earmarks and allow them to flourish. It may not be obvious in Washington, but it sure is clear out here in the country that new leadership is needed in Congress.

President Bush must share the blame. His pro-American foreign policy, strong homeland defense, and conservative approach on other issues are endangered by out-of-control spending. When he ran as a “compassionate conservative” it was unclear what that meant. Now we know. It means big government and big spending. But that game cannot be won, because liberals always will spend more and raise taxes to do so.

Mr. Bush set a bad example for Congress when he abandoned the balanced budget created by the restraint of the congressional Republicans of the class of 1994 and proposed a series of budgets with deep deficits. He has shown little interest in controlling spending, has failed to veto a single bill, and signed with praise transportation, agriculture and energy bills loaded with pork. His prescription drug bill is emerging as a big government fiasco that will haunt those who voted for it.

The voters’ choice has been reduced to outrageous government spending with huge deficits or even more outrageous spending with greatly increased taxes. Not much choice. Many members of Congress want to do the right thing, but the leadership has not been helpful. Earmarks and increased spending has become the norm. And uncontrolled spending is a symptom of a bigger problem — lifetime tenure in gerrymandered districts. This creates an untouchable political class, and fosters arrogance and corruption.

A good start would be to end all earmarks and limit service on the appropriations committees to six years. It would help for the president to take a stand for fiscal prudence and submit a budget that moves aggressively toward balance. He also could lead his party by vetoing future egregious spending.

The Republican Party should engage in serious soul-searching to find how to get back on track as the party of limited government and controlled federal spending. An important reform would return to the idea Republicans championed when in the minority — term limits for all political offices.

The fall of Duke Cunningham, the Navy’s only Vietnam ace, shows even the most honorable people can be corrupted by power and ability to direct federal spending to supporters.

Congressional Republicans can begin reforms when they vote this week for majority leader. John Shadegg of Arizona represents what the 1994 Republicans stood for. He opposes earmarks and wants to control spending. Making Mr. Shadegg majority leader is the first step in restoring public confidence in the Republican majority.

Then Speaker Dennis Hastert must carry out the needed reforms. A nice, well-liked man, Mr. Hastert has presided over an explosion in government spending while supporting earmarks that helped cause that explosion. If he will not or cannot end earmarks and control spending, he must be replaced.

Term limits is more difficult. The Supreme Court has held a constitutional amendment is needed to limit congressional terms, yet career politicians will never vote to limit their own terms. Republicans should work in each state at the grass roots for a Constitutional Convention to limit the terms of House and Senate members to 12 years in each house and give the president a line-item veto to cut unneeded spending.

But putting Mr. Shadegg in the leadership would be a good start.

James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times based in Carlsbad, Calif.

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