Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Where Have All the Fiscal Conservatives Gone?

The GOP went four decades of the 20th century without simultaneously controlling of both chambers of Congress and the White House. During the first couple of decades it seemed like Republicans stumbled around vainly searching for a vision of what they wanted to be when they grew up. There were always fiscal conservatives in the party ranks, but Ronald Reagan made fiscal conservatism an article of faith for the party.

During the 80s and 90s Congressional Republicans stood squarely against government expansion and increased spending. They didn’t always get their way, but they influenced the debate. After taking control of Congress in 1994, Congressional Republicans consistently approved budgets smaller than requested by President Clinton. They still didn’t always get their way and the President reduced military capacity, but they held domestic spending increases to roughly 3% annually.

Then came President G.W. Bush, bringing a whole new spirit into the GOP. It was the spirit of spend and then spend more. The annual rate of increase in domestic spending since W came to office has been 7.6%. I first grumbled about this last spring here. Last fall I wrote a series of gripes about this here, here, here, and here. I also cited Dick Armey’s plainspoken disgust with the situation here.

President Bush has repeatedly proposed stunning increases in spending only to be outdone by his own party in Congress, which has piled spending requests on top of those proposals with the help of only-too-willing Democrats. So far, our chief executive has yet to see one of these fat-laden bills he can’t sign. Hey, there’s still plenty of ink in the ol’ bill signing pen. The President’s recent wimpy warnings about a veto ring very hollow, as the veto stamp seems to have been lost or thrown out completely.

For those that need a refresher course on the budget process, the Constitution stipulates that all revenue bills originate in the House of Representatives. Both the Senate and the House must approve the final version before the bill is sent to the President. The President can either sign or veto the bill. The veto may be a crude tool, but it is a very strong tool in sending messages to the legislature about what the executive will accept and what he/she will not accept. By failing to veto any bill (not just bloated spending bills), President Bush has sent a clear message to the legislature that the sky’s the limit when it comes to spending and government expansion.

The things that all of us find most egregious about government today are more or less tied to its unwieldy size. No one can get their arms around the beast. We have created a sprawling organization that is simply too massive to be effectively managed by a single executive. In two and a half years we’ll have a new executive in the White House. Regardless of his/her moxie or party, he/she will still govern ineffectively. The only argument will be the degree of lousiness. Like, hey, it’s only a –5 instead of a –10.

The only way to reign in government to a manageable size is to reduce the amount it spends. Former Delaware Governor Pete du Pont says here that the GOP rank and file “are neither moderate nor liberal but believe in conservative economic values: lower tax rates, controlled spending, and a market- as opposed to government-oriented economy.” He says, “it is the current Republican government that is fiscally liberal and the biggest budget-busting federal spenders since the 1960s.” Hence, the disillusionment among GOP voters.

Du Pont presents a four-point plan for returning the GOP to spending consciousness. The plan must be intended to be a long-term project, because it certainly won’t happen under this president, as it relies on the president to exercise a lot of fiscal discipline with rescissions, vetoes, and a wishfully included line-item veto. Let’s face it, it’s not in W’s blood to do any of this. The fourth point calls for reform of the earmark process. That’s one thing that might have a ghost of a chance of actually happening.

Du Pont then calls for the hard medicine of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. I’m not sure how possible it is to get this through both chambers of Congress with at least two-thirds of each chamber voting in favor of it. But let’s just play like it’s possible. The only way 34 state legislatures would vote for it is if serious earmark reform were successful. Right now they’re addicted to the chits they get through the earmarking process. They would only vote to limit federal spending if they were sober and couldn’t get any more stuff from their pushers in D.C.

Du Pont specifically touts Delaware’s successful state constitutional amendment requiring “a three-fifths vote of the Legislature to approve spending more than 98% of revenue.” He also likes Colorado’s Taxpayers Bill of Rights. But please note that spending hungry politicians were able to convince Colorado voters to approve a totally unnecessary tax hike last year under that plan. Du Pont goes on to push for a national flat tax and repeal of free-speech inhibiting campaign rules that are chiefly designed to protect incumbents.

I think we ought to amend Utah’s constitution with something similar to the Delaware amendment. The only trouble is that I have this sinking feeling in my gut that it would be no problem to get three-fifths of the legislature to happily vote to spend more than 98% of revenues.

I like some of du Pont’s ideas, but I do not think they’re all workable. Moreover, I doubt we’re going to see any movement on limiting government until some consequential elected officials demonstrate strong leadership on the issue. Some of the voters are hungry for this message. But right now nobody with clout believes in it. Voters have the power to change that if it’s important enough to them.

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