The Wall Street Journal has a pair of articles out this morning that send a warning to congressional Republicans. One is by the editors and the other is by John Fund. Both warn Republicans of an upcoming drubbing (mainly by those who have strongly supported them in past elections) as fallout from the Abramoff scandal. Both suggest that House Republicans are not as secure in their gerrymandered districts and incumbent protection programs as they believe themselves to be.
To be sure, both Republicans and Democrats are in this thing together, as Matthew Continetti discusses here. But everyone knows who has been at the ship’s helm, and that is where voters will focus their ire. Such has always been the case.
The way I see it, and the way the editors write about it, the Abramoff scandal is merely a symptom of a broader problem. Congressional Republicans have veered away from the limited government philosophy of 1994 vintage to a philosophy of maintaining control at any cost. I have written many times about my disgust for the Republicans’ recent lack of fiscal discipline.
Desperate House Republicans seem to have suddenly found the religion of fiscal responsibility and are working to implement reforms that Journal editors say are “trivial” in order to look like they are doing something about the problem. Noting that the reforms are of the same ilk as campaign finance reform, the editors ask, “Why is it that whenever Congress gets into an ethics scrape, its first reaction is to further restrict the Constitutional rights of other Americans to influence Members of Congress?” They say, “The real House GOP problem isn't about lobbyists so much as it is the atrophying of its principles.”
How did this happen? The editors discuss the changes in the House Republican leadership over the past decade and say, “The leaders who remain have become ever more preoccupied with process, money and incumbency. Ideas are an afterthought, when they aren't an inconvenience.” Up until now, they haven’t had to worry because Democrats have an even greater dearth of ideas. But the problems of this past year have exposed a House GOP festering with decay that disgusts the Republican base.
John Fund rips House Republicans for their abuse of earmarks. Explaining what earmarks are and why they are bad, Fund says that “earmarks are a particularly corrupt form [of pork]. They are often last-minute additions to conference reports that were never considered in the original bills passed by either the House or Senate. They can thus avoid competitive bidding, performance standards or even disclosure of the direct recipient.” Fund shows how use of earmarks in transportation funding has grown by about 350% over the past five years.
Earmarks are the bread and butter (or cake and latté) of highly paid “parasitic specialized” lobbyists, who offer their services to clients. Per “Ron Utt, a former federal budget official now at the Heritage Foundation,” they virtually guarantee cities and counties earmarks. This kind of thing is brought to us by the passion to protect incumbency. The resulting environment promotes festering of Abramoff-like quid-pro-quo scandals.
Fund notes that earmarks were originally designed to help “lubricate” the political process and to get around bureaucrats that interpret the language of bills according to their own whims to circumvent Congress’ intent. To me it sounds like they tried to implement the two-wrongs-make-a-right philosophy, creating a bad process to overcome an existing bad process. At any rate, the monster they created has gotten out of hand.
Fund quotes John McCain as saying, “the best long-term answer to corruption is a smaller government.” Of course, McCain brought us free-speech-limiting campaign finance reform instead, which hasn’t reduced corruption at all. Michael Barone skillfully points out here that we can never be rid of lobbyists, so legislating their banishment will never produce the desired result. Besides, Barone argues that working to influence legislation that impacts you is a perfectly legitimate business.
What should Congressional Republicans do? The WSJ editors advise the jettison of Abramoff tainted legislators here. But they worry “that Republicans don't yet appreciate the trouble they're in.” Fund drives to the heart of the matter. He notes, “The federal government is now 250 times as big in real terms as it was a century ago.” He says that the only way out of this mess is for Republicans “to restore their limited-government credentials.”
I think Fund has it right, but his solution cannot be implemented overnight. It took years for Republicans to descend to their current level. It will take years and some significant pain to rebuild the trust they have abused. They may choose to begin surgery to remove infected parts now, or voters will begin the process for them in November. The Republican majority has been foolishly squandered, and it may not survive the surgical process.