- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2003

The curtain closed this week on the first session of the 108th Congress, sending lawmakers off for a holiday break and giving us time to review this year’s legislative accomplishments. One recent news theme reviews GOP efforts on a variety of fronts to secure its role as a “governing majority.”

While the inside-the-Hill strategies and tactics surrounding this debate are critical, another important component is missing — the organization and effectiveness of outside groups providing advocacy support for the Republican policy agenda. If Republicans hope to establish long-term majority status, what happens “outside” Congress is as important as the “inside” legislative agenda.

2003 was a historic year. Except for a few months after the 2000 election, Republicans lacked control of all the levers of power in Washington for almost a half century — since Dwight Eisenhower occupied the White House and Speaker Joseph Martin of Massachusetts and Senate Majority Leader Robert Taft of Ohio led the Congress.

Yet while President Bush, Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist now lead the executive and legislative branches of government, other powerful institutions are changing more slowly and are often led by those averse to Republican interests. While the power relationships in the Capitol and the White House have changed dramatically in the last several years, the complexion and texture of outside interest group politics has not. In many ways, the structure of interest groups in Washington is still based on a New Deal model. Changing this paradigm is a key ingredient in creating a governing majority.

For the past 50 years, the interest group model in Washington has been fairly stable. Democrats could reliably count on labor unions, environmental groups, Hollywood types and liberal, so-called public interest organizations, to support their policy wish list. These organizations provided advocacy support for a “Washington-knows best” agenda.

Republicans competed effectively over the years with these groups on a host of business-oriented regulatory, tax and trade-oriented issues. But with the Republican control of congress after the 1994 election and the Bush win in 2000, liberal interests were checked somewhat and a more common sense agenda of lower taxes, less regulation and free trade has made some progress — although more can and should be done.

Yet there has been less progress in non-economic policy legislation. Democrats have stalled the re-authorization of welfare reform and blocked critical legislation to provide incentives to charities. Education legislation, like No Child Left Behind, the reform of Head Start and revitalizing Higher Education are all under attack — not due to lack of effort by Republicans — but because entrenched Democrat interests simply out-muscle reform-minded Republicans with more money, manpower and media manipulation.

Tax cuts, free trade and Medicare reform proposals have realized success — in part — because a mature, well-financed and sophisticated set of economic interests have been able to compete with liberal lobbying on the other side. When it comes to non-economic policies, most of the same liberal groups show up — itching for a fight — while Republicans lack allies as powerful as the AFL-CIO, teachers unions and environmental activists. And now, liberal financers like George Soros are working with these old groupsusingnewnameslike Moveon.org, the Media Fund and America Coming Together, opposing Republicans with air and ground advocacy campaigns.

“Most of the Democrats’ traditional allies are card-carrying members of their ideological base, while some of the Republicans’ traditional allies are not ideological at all,” a former House GOP leadership aide said. Yet as the GOP majority matures, political tectonic plates are beginning to shift. The AARP’s role in the Medicare reform debate is one example. And the tide is beginning to turn on education. “In the end, American industry is beginning to realize that they carry the brunt of an ill-prepared work force,” a senior Bush administration official said. But this is only a start.

As the Republican majority matures, there will no doubt be continued policy debates about the direction of the party inside Congress. Tensions between different factions of the party over strategies, tactics and legislative priorities are all part of a healthy, vibrant and dynamic party. Yet Republican activists and strategists should also devote a considerable amount of time building new coalitions of smart individuals and groups that can articulate, finance and lobby effectively for alternatives to the Democratic welfare state. If they don’t, many timely and innovative ideas aimed at improving the lives of many of America’s needy and vulnerable will get buried in the rubble of demagoguery. And the Republican majority will only govern on part of its agenda.

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