- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 2, 2004

After four years of the largest growth in entitlement and nondefense discretionary spending in more than a half-century, conservatives finally can see some hope. This irresponsible spending, the greatest increase in unfunded entitlement obligations since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, has forced serious conservatives to face the facts. For years, the right has preached the dangers of bankruptcy from the trillions of dollars in red ink generated by the Ponzi-like funding of Social Security.

Yet, in one blow, Republicans in Washington added an unfunded Medicare liability equal to the entire Social Security obligation — plus one-half again — with their new prescription drug bill.

A large majority even of the conservative caucuses in both houses supported this expensive and controversial bill. Indeed, there were only 25 Republicans in the House and nine in the Senate who stood up to leadership pressure and opposed a badly flawed bill. But Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican and leader of the conservative House opposition to the bill, has been reporting over the past several months since the vote that more and more of his colleagues admitted to him quietly that they had made a mistake. What could they do to get their party back to the limited government principles that had allowed them to gain control of Congress, they whispered?

On Sept. 22, 2004, these repentant conservatives acted. Mr. Pence was elected the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the conservative Republican caucus in the House. Because a majority of its members supported the leadership’s drug bill, Mr. Pence was reluctant to accept mere appointment by the six permanent, founding members of the RSC, as had been the practice since its beginning. So they agreed to open the election of the chairman to the full membership to obtain a mandate from all to plot a more principled and aggressive legislative course for the future. As it turned out, Mr. Pence was elected unanimously. The Steering Committee also was expanded to add others who had voted their philosophy against leadership pressure, such as Jeff Flake and Marilyn Musgrave.

To show his commitment to this more principled conservative course for the future, Mr. Pence announced he would resign his position as a deputy majority whip. “One cannot serve two masters,” he explained and it would not be fair to the Republican leadership to remain on their team while chairing an independent group, although he said he saw no conflict for Steering Committee members to take such positions.

This courageous decision sets Mr. Pence apart, forgoing leadership ambitions to steer a quieter but more important course, to restore a principled conservative presence in the House of Representatives.

The new chairman’s plans are bold. He will lead his cadre of conservative members by reverting to a strategy adopted by Republican House members when they were wandering in what seemed to be a perpetual minority wilderness. The revitalized Republicans on the right will advance conservative solutions through Special Order and one-minute speeches during the quiet hours when most members are off pacifying constituents or soliciting campaign funds. While the audiences are relatively small by TV standards, it was this advocacy under the bright glare of C-SPAN coverage that first presented the new Republican ideas to the activists who generated the wider public support that eventually led to majority status. In addition, the RSC will initiate a forward-looking appropriations strategy proposing substantive amendments to advance conservative principles rather than pork projects.

Mr. Pence says he learned two things from fighting the prescription drug wars. More communication is needed between Republican congressional members and between them and outside conservative groups, 50 of which supported his efforts at the time. The second lesson is that the right needs more conservatives in Congress. This has led to formation of a political action committee to aid the election of principled conservative members who would then be solicited to join RSC efforts once they are elected. Plans are to get needed funds to conservative challengers even in this election.

Congratulations to Mr. Pence on his election, and hooray to him and his colleagues for the guts to begin the revival of congressional conservatism in the wake of the Republican legislative meltdown over the past four years.

Donald Devine, former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is editor of ConservativeBattleline.com, the American Conservative Union Foundation’s opinion journal.

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