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March 2007 -- You elected Republicans have almost hit rock bottom.
You lost control of the Senate and House for the first time in twelve years and of governorships across the country. President George W. Bush is unpopular with members of your own party as well as with Democrats. In his recent State of the Union address, he advocated more big government in education and energy, along with strict spending restraints—where has this guy been for the past six years?—and a balanced budget without tax hikes. So we’re likely to have two more years of incoherent policies.
You have presided over the largest expansion of spending and government programs in Washington since the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon eras. Yes, the Democrats are usually worse; on top of spending, they love to raise taxes. But there’s a difference. Most Republicans pose as conservative advocates of small government, fiscal responsibility, and more individual freedom, at least in the economic sphere.
After your November 2006 drubbing at the polls, some of you in the lame-duck Congress even tried to use your final few weeks in charge of Congress to cram some 10,000 spending earmarks into a military appropriations conference bill. It was like watching a sodden drunk who had collapsed in the gutter, face down in the mud, and yet who, with blurry vision and the last strength he had left, still reached for the bottle of booze sitting on the curb. Shameful and pathetic!
Fortunately, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint and Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, both Republicans, acted like your true friends, prying the $17 billion bottle from your shaky hands by forcing you to vote a continuing resolution. Meanwhile, though, Alaska Republican Senator Ted Stevens led the ranting and raving among the morally inebriated spendaholics among you who resented being forced onto the wagon. He’d been seeking $223 million for his “bridge to nowhere,” which would connect the Alaska mainland to a small island inhabited by only about 50 people. Hell, for that kind of money you could pay each person over four million dollars to move to the mainland and live in a mansion.
Falling into the political gutter is perhaps the best thing that could have happened to many of you, because this might be the only way for you and your supporters to sober up and become responsible; the alternative is that you will continue your slide into political oblivion.
But we see that you clearly can’t clean up your own act on your own. You need an intervention. In today’s therapeutic society, there are programs to deal with just about every real or imagined personal pathology. The granddaddy of such solutions is Alcoholics Anonymous, with its twelve-step program that is supposed to lead to and sustain sobriety.
So, I’ll address you GOP officials in language I hope you’ll understand. I’ll offer you big-government conservatives and spendaholics a twelve-step program that, if followed, can help you make America a decent political society again, and, perhaps, return you to the political majority. Here’s what you need to do:
No excuses. You guys blew it.
When you Republicans took control of Congress after the 1994 elections, leaders like Dick Armey and Newt Gingrich, plus the Contract with America on which you ran, emphasized the basic principles of limited government. President Clinton was smart enough to know that he should go along, at least initially, with your plans. Overall federal spending increased on average by 3.6 percent per year between 1995 and 2000—still higher than the inflation rate of only 2.5 percent during that period but well below the growth in spending of over 5 percent per year during the administration of Bush Senior, a taxaholic as well as spendaholic president.
Take a look at the Constitution. Seriously, there’s probably a copy on the wall somewhere in the Capitol Building.
Then Big George’s son, Mr. “Compassionate Conservative,” was elected president in 2000, and all hell broke loose. Federal spending between 2001 and 2006 skyrocketed by some 10 percent annually. Yes, there was the war on terror. But domestic spending minus the military stuff grew as well—faster in the first four years of Bush II than for any president since Lyndon Johnson. And the annualized real growth in discretionary spending grew 8 percent through 2005 under George W. Bush but only 4.6 percent under Johnson.
Come on, admit what you did. You let yourselves be seduced to back a huge new Medicare entitlement that will cost at least $650 billion over a decade. You backed “No Child Left Behind,” allowing Washington bureaucrats to reach their claws into local classrooms from coast to coast. You assumed that if you just acted like Democrats you could buy the votes of your constituents. But hell, then why not just elect Democrats? Oh, right—that’s just what the voters did in 2006!
Yes, the war was a big issue, but exit polls showed that voters identified elephants rather than donkeys as the party of “big government.”
So, don’t blame the media, “macaca” moments, or the war for your behavior. Blame yourselves. Admit that you have a problem.
The path to fiscal sobriety starts with changes in attitude. So, let’s place you in your proper moral context.
In a free country, we need agents to protect our lives, liberty, and property. Police, soldiers, and judges all perform honorable functions and should take pride in their honesty and impartiality. They should be ashamed and jailed if they abuse their powers and misuse their offices.
You, our elected legislators, also can serve a valuable function as guardians of our freedom, not as our masters or nursemaids.
In Washington, we know that you are bombarded by the wrong signals from everyone around you and from the corrupt culture in which you work. In committee hearings, you sit like royalty on a raised dais. Witnesses humbly and profusely thank you for the great honor of testifying before Your Celestial Eminences. When you walk into a room, all eyes turn to you, every hand reaches to shake yours, and every voice wants to catch your ear for some important request.
You, our elected legislators, are not to serve as our masters or nursemaids.
This treatment has obviously gone to your heads. Too many of you act toward the rest of us as if our money and our freedom are yours to do with as you please; as if it’s your job to run our lives; as if you know better how to spend our money than we do; as if we must justify to you why we should keep what we earn or be allowed to do as we please.
It’s worse than role-reversal. It’s as if we hired you as our security guards and now find you pulling stick-ups in the hall. Yes, most Democrats are worse. But you’re the ones who claim to stand for limited government.
Remember, you’re our servants. We hired you. It’s an honorable profession to help protect our lives, liberty, and property, but remember: We’re our own masters, not you.
We know and you know that your addiction to spending is driven in part by your urge to bring home to your state or district some of the taxpayer money that has found its way to Washington. But remember that when you found your way to Washington, you took the oath of office to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Take a look at that document. Seriously, there’s probably a copy on the wall somewhere in the Capitol building. Or the Cato Institute gives out a very nice pocket-size version with the Declaration of Independence thrown into the bargain.
It’s a document of limited and enumerated powers. Otherwise it would be a very short document and wouldn’t have all those articles and sections in it; it would just say “do whatever you want.” Instead, Article I, Section 8 outlines your jurisdiction.
The purpose of the Constitution and the federal system is to give government in Washington powers only over certain matters, leaving all other powers—in the words of the Tenth Amendment—“to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Many of you are not use to thinking this way; you’re probably the products of public schools and didn’t study this stuff. So, to help you judge whether a matter is any of your damned business to begin with, here are some questions to ask yourselves:
And when you find that something is, in fact, none of your business, explain to your colleagues, constituents, the press, and anyone else who will listen exactly why a proposal is not authorized by the Constitution. (See step twelve below.) And next time you take that oath to uphold the Constitution, perhaps you should add “and I really mean it!”
Okay, now that you see the overall picture, let’s get down to practical steps to help you kick your big-spending addiction. It starts with language.
Just listen to yourselves sometime. You speak of federal spending as if it simply “happens,” like forces of nature. You act as if you're not responsible for growing expenditures and that your power to control spending is limited. Indeed, you speak of most spending—Social Security, Medicare, and hundreds of billions of dollars in entitlements—as “uncontrollable.” Of course, you move faster than a candidate to a TV camera to take credit with voters for the beneficence you pretend to shower upon them whenever you create or expand those benefits.
You speak of spending in the abstract or in the passive voice. “Expenditures were not covered by revenues.” Or: “Deficits increased.” Or: “Projected outlays exceeded anticipated income.” This is nothing more than grammatical obfuscation, a deliberate attempt to conceal the truth from the public and voters.
So, as part of your therapy, start using subjects and verbs in sentences that actually refer to human beings, the only creatures who can act and make choices about spending money. Translate your statements into plainer English: “A majority of we 535 elected members of Congress spend more—much more—than we take in.” “We are unable to set down priorities. We want it all and don’t mind paying on credit, since we as individuals and even as elected officials will not be held accountable.”
Falling into the political gutter was the best thing that could’ve happened to you.
And stop using the old authorization-or-budget-projections-versus-appropriations ruse. Yes, you guys must authorize and then appropriate. Authorization is like the credit limit on your Mastercard; appropriation is how much you charge up. If you drop your credit limit from $5,000 to $4,000 some year, but increase your spending from $1,000 to $2,000, don’t run around saying you “cut authorization by $1,000.” You’re taking an extra $1,000 from our wallets.
And don’t use the old “current services budget” dodge. Last year you spent $100 million on a project. This year you planned to spend $110 million but in the end only spent $105 million. Don’t tell us you cut five million; you increased actual spending by five million.
Such a scam is like an alcoholic who pretends that he is cutting back on drinking if he consumes nine drinks a day, “projects” moving up to fifteen drinks the next day, but only goes up to twelve. Bottom line: he’s drinking more.
You big spenders often like to minimize the damage done by your addiction by minimizing the costs for specific spending items. We’ve heard you all saying, for example, “This $33.9 million for wildlife habitat studies, aquaculture research, and all of Senator Thad Cochran’s other pork for his state of Mississippi works out to only ten cents per American.” This is the equivalent of the alcoholic making the excuse that “It’s only one drink.” Yet each new dollar spent, like each drink, adds up to your serious addiction.
To gain control of your addiction, try expressing spending in a way that truly reflects its magnitude and potential damage. For example, to spend one million dollars on the Water-Free Urinal Conservation Initiative is like taking a $50 coat from 20,000 Americans. To spend $13.5 million for the International Fund for Ireland to, among other things, build a community café and help fund a World Toilet Summit (What’s with this potty obsession? I guess that’s where Congress’s head is at!) is like confiscating a $20,000 automobile from 500 Americans. To spend the $325 million on all of the pork projects for Republican pork-king Senator Ted Stevens is like confiscating the very fine houses of 1,000 Americans.
And by the way, when you cut a tax—when you take less money out of someone’s pocket—don’t speak of it as a “favor to the rich” or to anyone else. Yes, I know that it’s the Democrats who generally speak that way. And yes, across-the-board rather than targeted tax cuts are what you should go for. But while we’re clearing up the language, we might as well clear up this Democrat Newspeak as well.
That’s how to make the costs real!
Now that we’re clear about language, the next step is to make even clearer the costs to taxpayers. One way to remind taxpayers of the close connection between what comes out of their wallets and who takes it is to move tax day from April 15th to the first Monday in November. That way, elections held on the second Tuesday in November will always come just after we file our taxes. The voters will be in the perfect mood to evaluate candidates for public office. Republican congressman Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland has proposed legislation to do this.
To help Americans understand how much federal spending actually takes out of their pockets, income tax payments should no longer be withheld from paychecks. Withholding began only in 1943 as a wartime emergency measure, and like most emergency measures it never disappeared. Instead of money being taken out of our paychecks every payday, workers might be required to pay in several other manners. For example, workers could be given their full paychecks and then required to send in the amount for federal taxes, state, city, and county taxes, Social Security, and the like every week.
Or, better still, require them to send in one lump-sum payment on tax day. Many self-employed Americans already need to make quarterly payments. The huge size of this payment would educate every American real fast about your spending habits. One such payment like that and no spendaholic will dare show his head in any town meeting in the country!
So, how did you Republicans go from having a Reagan-like reputation as the heartless spending-slashers—heroes of the Republic watching out for our wallets—to being the party of big government? One word: earmarks.
Let’s do a refresher course on the legislative process. Normally, for better or worse, appropriations bills are introduced in Congress and sent to committees for hearings. If they pass committee, they go to the full House or Senate. If they pass in both, there are usually two different versions of the bills, and they must go to a conference committee to be ironed out. Then the final version is sent back to the full houses for a final vote and on to the president’s desk for signature. (In theory, the president can actually veto wasteful spending bills, but President Bush apparently never read that part of the Constitution.)
Legislation is supposed to address national concerns (see the list in step three, above). But you Congress-critters have taken to inserting specific spending items in bills that usually are not vetted in committee hearings. They’re often added in conference committees or as floor amendments to give specific amounts of money to specific local projects or groups privileged enough to have your ear.
The Congressional Research Service lists 3,023 earmarks in 1996, 6,073 in 2000 (the year President Bush was elected), and a whopping 15,877 in 2005.You guys are on a feeding frenzy!
There are a number of reform measures offered by your colleagues that would require all appropriations to be voted on in regular committees, no earmarks added in conference and the like. Sign on to these!
And please note that, in many cases, if earmarked money isn’t flushed down one toilet, it will only be flushed down another—that the money will stay in the budget and not be eliminated, thus reducing spending. Look for ways to make a cut a real cut.
If you want to take the moral high ground, oppose sneaky forms of wealth transfer.
“But Dr. Ed,” you implore, “We really do need that road, bridge, and toilet-study grant to a particular college, institute, organization, and project in my state.” I doubt it, but let’s give you the benefit of the doubt. Surely you can see what’s going on here. You’re picking the pocket of Paducah to pay Poughkeepsie. All of you are simply shuffling funds around via political power, with hundreds of billions of dollars lost in the shuffling process to pay bureaucrats and middle men. And that’s the beauty of federalism (again, see step three, above). You guys in New York figure out your priorities and sort out who gets what that’s specific to your state in Albany and let the folks in Illinois sort out in Springfield what they want to do.
“But Dr. Ed,” you protest, “The Democrats pass out money and favors, too.” Well, didn’t your mothers tell you that two wrongs don’t make a right?
There are various ways to transfer wealth from the pockets of some into the pockets of others. A direct way is to tax income and then to dole out the dough from Washington. Or, you might substitute indirect ways for doing the same thing. These ways might not be as obvious as direct taxation, but the result will be the same. An alcoholic might substitute rum for whiskey, but he’s still an alcoholic.
In addition to pushing pork, for example, Democrats are seen—along with too many of you Republicans, I fear—planning to pass a huge minimum wage hike. Now I’m for workers getting as high a wage as they can, as long as they don’t pull a gun on anyone. But mandating a higher minimum wage or forcing businesses to give employees other benefits is just another way of taking money out of the pockets of some people against their will and handing it to others. If the victims refuse to pay up, federal agents with guns will take them away.
Another example of spending by indirect means is to put restrictions on imports that limit or bar the liberty of Americans to purchase products from foreign enterprises, which thus allows domestic enterprises to charge higher prices. It still comes out of our wallets.
And even though America is the world’s job-creation machine, with low unemployment, many of you are mobilizing for an assault on “outsourcing.” But that, too, limits economic liberty and reduces overall purchasing power for Americans.
If you want to take the moral as well as political high ground in opposing wasteful spending, you need to oppose these sneakier forms of wealth transfers.
You deal day in and day out with other members of Congress who are trying to get you to support their favorite waste of money. Such an environment can leave you numb to common sense and clear thinking. So try this.
When you spot spending that seems questionable (just about all of it), pick up the phone and call ten of your constituents at random and say, “This is your congressman/woman or senator. The administration wants to spend $2.3 million of your money on an International Fertilizer Development Center. What do you think? … No, my head’s not full of that stuff!” Or: "The Richard Steele Boxing Club wants $100,000 from you. . . . What? Let ’em raise it themselves? Good advice, I’ll tell ’em!"
Washington is to spendaholics what a saloon at happy hour is to an alcoholic, or what a casino is to a compulsive gambler. Even with the best of intentions, the longer that elected officials are in Washington, the more of the public’s money they will be tempted to spend.
One of Nancy Pelosi’s first acts on becoming Speaker of the Democrat-controlled House was to declare that members would work a five-day week instead of the two-and-a-half days under the more leisurely Republicans. (Her second act, by the way, was to cancel work on the first day of the first full week so that members could watch the college football final.)
Wrong, Nancy! We want you here in D.C. as little as possible.
Individuals with drinking problems know that a basic rule is to avoid the company of enablers, those who might tempt you to have “just one drink,” which, of course, will lead to more and more. If you have a problem, don’t even walk into the bar.
Politicians should do the same thing. Return to your districts more often. Keep out of Washington!
Don’t blame the media, ‘macaca’ moments, or the war for your behavior. Blame yourselves.
“But Dr. Ed,” you ask, “What about all those lobbyists? Shouldn’t we continue to restrict them as well?” It’s true that the number of registered lobbyists has grown from 16,342 in 2000 to 34,785 in 2005. Of course, federal outlays have grown from $1.7 trillion to $2.29 billion. The reason there are lobbyists is because you guys spend so much and have so much power to make or break an enterprise, industry, or economic sector that you attract lobbyists they way honey attracts flies.
The First Amendment to the Constitution (once more, see step three) does give citizens the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” so you can’t shut lobbyists down. What you can do is appreciate that, to get rid of them, you need to lose some of your power.
To spend, you usually need to sell—that is, sell your vote. Okay, spare me your outrage: You know what I’m talking about. To support your habit, you must secure the votes of your colleagues. They pick pockets for you and you pick pockets for them. You support their road project, and they support your grant for a hog fertility clinic. You support subsidies for their farmers, and they support your handouts to local small businesses.
This is known as “logrolling,” and it only goes to show that becoming a spendaholic in D.C. is as easy as falling off a log. For the taxpayer, it’s like getting hit in the head with a log.
One way you can allow some adult authority to undo your mistakes is to give the president a line-item veto so that he/she can cut some pork. One version of that veto power used by President Clinton was ruled unconstitutional. But Republican Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin pushed a bill through the House in 2006 that would have created a line-item veto tool that would probably have passed constitutional muster. That’s just one way to save you if you fall off the wagon.
Supporting a base-closing-commission-type plan to cut pork also would address the logrolling problem. Bundle together Republican and Democrat pork, and attach a rule for a simple up-or-down vote on the cuts, without amendments. That’s what a commission did for wasteful military bases in the past, and it’s what could be done for other waste today.
Another no-brainer idea to hold down spending is to require a two-thirds “supermajority” vote to raise discretionary spending above that of the prior year. Oklahoma Republican Senator Jim Inhofe calculates that this spending-cap measure would have saved billions of dollars over the past decade. Inhofe has a whole pile of great ideas to hold down taxes and spending, so instead of hanging around with other spendaholics (see step nine, above), hang out with him!
A key to redeeming yourselves is to try to make amends with those whom you have harmed. This is not fully possible since the damage done by big-government spending programs has been deep and sustained. The culture of free, responsible citizens has been undermined.
Making amends means reducing the size of government, taxes, and regulations. But be more specific. Look at particular victims. Study and publish reviews of the damage.
For example, all Americans have money forcibly taken from their paychecks and put into the government Ponzi scheme called Social Security, which gives us a small percentage of return on the dollar compared to what we could get if we were allowed to put all that money into any diversified private retirement account. Worse, African-Americans tend to die younger than other demographic groups, often before they’ve collected much, if any, of the money taken from them for Social Security. Generally, that money is lost; it doesn’t go to a surviving spouse. So, explain to African-Americans that you are pushing to allow them and all other Americans the freedom to invest in private accounts that money taken from them for Social Security, especially as redress for the harm done to them by government wealth transfers.
Perhaps each of you Republicans, in a true show of bipartisanship, can team up with a Democrat and mutually pledge to support cuts in each others’ pork projects. “My friend and I will both vote to cut my farm subsidy and his/her handout to the local park." You can join hands, sing “Kumbaya.” How beautiful!
This is one of the most important steps. Don’t just take the steps yourself; advertise them and invite all morally upstanding Republicans—and Democrats as well— to join you in spreading the word and the practice.
Perhaps each week, as at meetings of AA-type self-help groups, members of Congress could rise to speak on the floor of the House and Senate and describe how they were tempted to spend, and the sort of arguments made to them by spending pushers. They could show how, invoking the Constitution and other principles in the rest of these steps, they overcame temptation. They could identify lobbyists that they kicked out of their offices for asking them to steal from their fellow citizens, and they could advise their fellow members to do the same.
And be stern with members who won’t change their ways. Alaska spendaholic Ted Stevens protested when there was a move to cut his boondoggle bridge, saying that, “I will put the Senate on notice—and I don’t kid people—if the Senate decides to discriminate against our state and take money only from our state, I will resign from this body.” Next time, take him up on such an offer! Let his type join the other Republicans who got clobbered at the polls in 2006.
We all make mistakes in our lives. We might not be able to undo them, but we can strive to make sure that we don’t repeat them. Republicans have suffered the consequences of theirs and know now that they must sober up.
Take the twelve-step pledge and restore fiscal sobriety!
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.