HACKETT: Cut spending is the order of Election Day

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In the 1972 movie, “The Candidate,” Robert Redford plays a young lawyer picked by political bosses to run for an unwinnable U.S. Senate seat. Mr. Redford ends up winning the election with a charming personality and glib manner. At the end of the movie he asks, “What do we do now?”

That’s not a question this year. With Tuesday’s Republican tidal wave, the voters have answered loud and clear - cut spending.

The lame-duck Congress that meets this month should just extend the Bush tax cuts and go home, leaving unfinished legislation for the newly elected Congress, which has a mandate to cut the cost of government. But even before the new members take office, congressional Republicans should change the way they do business.

Members of both houses will be meeting in the coming days to decide the rules and committee chairmen for the next Congress. Their first step should be to impose a ban on earmarks. Senators who were not up for re-election this year and who expect to continue earmarks as usual should realize that they may well face a primary challenge the next time.

There should be a real effort to change the way the appropriations committees operate. These committees have been the locus of big spending in both houses. The bills that pay for government operations usually are increased in these committees.

Each year, the bills start higher than the year before, and then are increased under pressure from special interests. Appropriations Committee members are called “powerful” because they decide how much government can spend and which groups will benefit. And the chairmen are called “cardinals” because they are so hard to unseat.

With 60 members in the House and 30 in the Senate, the appropriations committees are too big, giving more members a chance to slip in add-ons for their state or district, and perhaps for favored contributors. Also, members often use their tenure on the committee and their resulting ability to bring home the bacon as an argument for re-election.

But the country is now deeply in debt and no longer can afford business as usual. These committees should be reduced in size, and strict term limits applied to both chairmen and members. The effort should be made to identify more fiscally responsible people and then put them on these committees as well.

In keeping with the expressed will of the majority of voters, the emphasis of the appropriations committees should be changed from spending to cutting. A reasonable goal would be to reduce the cost of government to that of 2008 before the stimulus and the outrageously high spending of the Obama administration.

It is important to put reform-minded legislators in leadership positions, including the all-important committee chairmanships. Current members who meet the test of fiscal responsibility include Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, and Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona.

Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is a junior senator, but as a reform-minded medical doctor, who is better qualified to lead the effort to redo health care? House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio did not use earmarks himself and worked to end them, despite strong opposition within his own party. He deserves to be the next speaker.

Beginning in January, the new Congress can work on repealing Obamacare, removing environmental restrictions on business, reducing agricultural and other subsidies, cutting federal outlays wherever they are excessive, and starting to reduce the federal deficit. The president is likely to veto some efforts, which will require compromises to show at least partial results. But vetoes of spending cuts will only clarify the issue for 2012.

It is most urgent to take steps that will help business create jobs. But it is also important to reform the Republican Party in Congress and return it to its roots of small government and limited spending. Tea Party activists who came from nowhere to help Republicans win are promising to stay around to see if they really do cut spending.

And they will be voting again in two years.

James T. Hackett was an official in the Reagan administration.

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