- The Washington Times - Friday, November 11, 2005

Losing the governorship in the reliably red state of Virginia to Democrat Tim Kaine doesn’t help sagging Republican morale. It does hold a lesson: Don’t take your base for granted.

Let’s review. In 1980, Ronald Reagan rallied a demoralized Republican Party around a few core messages. One was a simple economic revival plan: Tax less, spend less. One of Mr. Reagan’s most powerful legacies was the proof it worked.

By slashing marginal tax rates in 1981 from 70 percent to 28 percent, revenues climbed by 65 percent by decade’s end. While battling a Democrat-controlled Congress, Mr. Reagan presided over a 9 percent cut to real nondefense discretionary spending.

Then something happened. Republicans lost religion. Despite evidence marginal tax rate cuts create revenue, former President George H.W. Bush raised taxes. A few years after Republicans took back Congress in 1994, they broke their Contract with America and increased spending.

Republicans have held Congress for six terms. It is the second year of the second term of a Republican president. We face a $2.5 trillion dollar budget and a projected deficit of $333 billion, this year. In the last five years we’ve seen the greatest growth in discretionary spending since the Great Society. Add $62.5 billion in hurricane relief, which could rise to $150 billion and we must ask: Is this the party of fiscal discipline?

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, has tried bringing common sense back to Congress. He offered an amendment to the 2006 Transportation Bill to redirect $233 million for a bridge to Alaska’s Gravina Island (population: 50) to rebuild a stretch of the I-10 bridge connecting New Orleans to Slidell, La. The amendment was defeated 15-82. Eleven Republicans voted with Mr. Coburn. That is, 43 Republicans voted nay.

As Mr. Coburn’s office noted, $233 million is enough to give every resident on Gravina Island their own Lear jet. Though the amendment may have fizzled, the bloated bill with its multiple “bridges to nowhere” lit a fuse among fiscal conservatives.

Two days later, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, joined with Republican Sens. Coburn, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John Sununu of New Hampshire and John Ensign of Nevada to announce a hurricane relief plan to save $125 billion in two years with across-the-board discretionary cuts and a two-year delay of the Medicaid prescription drug plan. That totals seven of 54 Republican senators, again showing fiscal conservatism seems a principle held by a minority of the fiscally conservative party.

Why do Republican candidates campaign to limit spending but seem unable to control themselves when presented with taxpayer dollars? The answer is that Congress often doesn’t even know what it is voting for.

The Transportation bill has more than 6,000 earmarks or special projects. Consider it is just one of countless bills and resolutions Congress votes on. To move forward on a bill, legislators “logroll” i.e. “I’ll vote for your bill, if you vote for mine” — a practice reinforced because there is no penalty.

Mr. McCain notes Congress is operating in reverse, appropriating money before it is authorized. “Authorizing committees have become debating societies. Real legislating is done by the appropriations committees.” Earmarks are often slipped in by lobbyists. Members might not see the pork until after the vote, especially on omnibus bills.

And in a national emergency like Hurricane Katrina, or September 11, Congress can pass an “emergency spending bill” — a treasure chest for special interest groups because they don’t count against House and Senate budget caps, and the president rarely vetoes them.

The exponential growth of earmarking, coupled with unauthorized appropriations, indicates a serious operational flaw in the legislative body of the United States.

Some members recognize this. Mr. Brownback and Rep. Kevin Brady, Texas Republican, have both proposed sunset commissions to phase out obsolete and dysfunctional government programs. “Operation Offset” is an effort by House Republicans, chaired by Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, to shift money within the budget to help pay for Hurricane Katrina. There is also talk of resurrecting the line item veto.

But, even with procedural reforms, Republicans should know they have embraced a Big Government philosophy. Though cuts to marginal tax rates are self-financing, the resulting revenue does not give a carte blanche to spend to infinity. Every dollar taken out of the private sector is a dollar lost to productive use and only feeds the Leviathan. By justifying more government spending for its own sake, the Tax Less, Spend More Republicans are a half-step removed from the Tax A lot More, Spend More Democrats.

Republicans must return to fiscal principles. If they want to continue as the party of Ronald Reagan, they may want to ask themselves next time a pork-filled bill comes up for vote, “What would Reagan do?” Or better yet, just recall what Mr. Reagan did. In 1984, he vetoed the Highway bill and its 154 earmarks quipping, “I haven’t seen this much pork since handing out blue ribbons at the Iowa state fair.”

What Would Mr. Reagan Do with 6,000 earmarks, “Mr. Speaker, Tear down this bill.”

Eileen Norcross is a research fellow at the Mercatus Center Government Accountability Project at George Mason University.

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