Free-market economists and public-policy analysts gathered in the District last week to discuss the next steps for fiscal conservatives in the wake of a recently defeated Republican Congress and a big-spending Republican administration.
Although they noted certain successes, such as relatively stable government spending in the past 50 years and remarkable economic growth, participants worried what the next 50 years may bring. As baby boomers retire, the increased costs of entitlements threaten to increase overall government spending, severely impairing economic growth.
Peter Ferrara, director of the International Center for Law and Economics, warned that threatening to cut some entitlements poses a political danger.
"You have to maintain the safety nets in place. The public will not support anything without the safety nets in place," he said.
He recommended private accounts as the best way to cut government spending by taking money out of the public sector while increasing the value of Social Security for the taxpayer.
Participants agreed that Congress should significantly cut discretionary spending and increase accountability by making government spending transparent. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, lauded Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican, for ordering the public release of a comprehensive report of the state government's expenditures.
The group disagreed on whether fiscal conservatives should concentrate on slashing earmarks. William A. Niskanen, chairman of the Cato Institute, encouraged participants to focus on entitlements instead of "tiny items" like earmarks, which he said make up less than 1 percent of government spending.
John Fund of the Wall Street Journal called earmarks "the currency of corruption" and linked the passage of the prescription-drug entitlement to earmark handouts to congressmen.
"It's a much bigger cost than just the dollar amount," he said.
Cato Institute economist Chris Edwards said earmarks have affected the "culture of Congress."
"I think earmarks have made it so that [members of Congress] think their job is to bring money back to their district," he said.
Mr. Norquist suggested that fighting earmarks could be a valuable tool in combating government spending in general.
"People don't get mad about billion-dollar things because they don't understand them," he said. "People understand earmarks."
Mr. Norquist expressed no surprise that elected Republicans on the national level tend to be big spenders. While a liberal position on gun control or abortion could lose a Republican base votes, "spending too much doesn't make anybody walk out the door," he said. "Everybody says, 'Oh I wish you wouldn't do that. Grumble, grumble, grumble.' "
Stephen Slivinski, author of "Buck Wild: How Republicans Broke the Bank and Became the Party of Big Government," said he has no regrets about Republican electoral losses in 2006.
"I think the fact that the Republicans lost office is a very good thing," he said. "When you've got gridlock, you're going to be better off."