Commentary

On My Mind: GOP Pussycats

This essay appears in the Nov. 13, 2000, issue of Forbes magazine.
“The natural progress of things,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “is for government to gain ground and for liberty to yield.” A couple of hundred years later they gave the Nobel Prize for economics to James Buchanan for packaging the same insight into something called Public Choice Theory. Left unattended, bureaucratic incentives will make government grow on its own volition. Mix in redistributionist ideologues and special interests rolling around in the public trough and, well, the era of big government ain’t over, after all.

This “natural progress” Jefferson spoke of was pretty well understood by the Founders. That’s why they created a Constitution that gave explicitly enumerated (and therefore limited) powers to the national government while leaving the united states free to fend for themselves. Confiscatory taxation and burdensome regulation would be limited by competition among the states. Very cool concept.

Except for one thing. To work, the system requires at least one political party to take the Constitution and limited government seriously. Otherwise the Constitution is so much parchment. For better or for worse (for worse, lately) the Republican party has been the party of small government. In theory. There will always be a party that believes the coercive mechanisms of the state are the appropriate means for ordering societal affairs. The Democrats fill this role by instinct. But these days it appears the GOP has grown into it.

Consider: Over the past three years the Republican-controlled Congress has approved discretionary spending that exceeded Bill Clinton’s requests by more than $30 billion. The party that in 1994 would abolish the Department of Education now brags in response to Clinton’s 2000 State of the Union Address that it is outspending the White House when it comes to education. My colleagues Stephen Moore and Stephen Slivinski found that the combined budgets of the 95 major programs that the Contract with America promised to eliminate have increased by 13%. Republican congressional candidates are frightened to be associated with George W. Bush’s sensible proposal to allow Americans to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in real assets.

What’s going on? Clearly, a large part of the problem is leadership. Following the GOP victory in 1994, Newt Gingrich resembled no one more than Robert Redford in The Candidate. What do we do now? For all of his talent in generating the “revolution,” Newt was never the conservative ideologue the media painted him to be.

As for current leadership, it’s doubtful that Trent Lott or Dennis Hastert would recognize a political principle if either tripped over one. Leaders they are not. At best they are tacticians, and not very good ones at that. Last year Lott said of the $35 billion budget-cap-busting “emergency” spending bill, “It sucks, but let’s pass it anyway.” This year the Senate majority leader found negotiating with Clinton in the budget rounds frustrating because “only $30 billion in a $2 trillion federal budget separates Congress’ budget from the President’s.” Some reason to keep a Republican majority! For his part, Hastert complains that the Democrats are “wildly” overstating the GOP tax cut, which he boasts is really only 11.6% of the total projected surplus of $4.6 trillion. Inspiring.

At some point Republicans are going to have to find some leadership in the mold of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater or risk becoming irrelevant. Hiding behind “fiscal responsibility” in times of deficits has made them feckless defenders of limited government in times of surplus. Obsession with scandals has undermined their ability to articulate the case against overweening bureaucracy.

Political leadership requires vision, a commitment to principle and a willingness to engage the opposition on the proper role of government in a free society. Whether the Republicans maintain their majorities or not, they need new leadership in both houses of Congress. In the long run it’s more important what the Republicans of the 107th Congress say and do than whether they wield the gavels.

Edward H. Crane is the president of the Cato Institute.