Commentary

Offset Opportunity

This article appeared in the Washington Times on September 19, 2005.

As Hurricane Katrina’s financial costs continue rising, Republicans have been reluctant to offset disaster aid with restraint elsewhere in the budget.

President Bush offered no spending offsets in his Thursday address. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay recently said the budget was already “pared down” and challenged critics to show him possible spending cuts.

Fiscal conservatives didn’t used to have to tell Republican leaders where to cut — Mr. DeLay and others were leading the charge. In the 1990s, high deficits and bloated government prompted the GOP to push for cuts to dozens of programs. They achieved some restraint and passed a budget in 1997 to bring the deficit down to zero. Republican leaders today seek no major spending cuts and have no plan to end the deficit.

Why not? A recent poll for the Associated Press found 70 percent of Americans worry about the high deficit, and twice as many of this group want to eliminate it by cutting spending rather than raising taxes. Rising hurricane relief costs give further reason to cut obsolete programs from the budget.

The public supports restraint. The hurdle seems to be a tired and complacent Republican leadership. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma lamented of Republican colleagues that “Washington turns outsiders into insiders.” When Republicans took control of Congress a decade ago, they were reformers. Today, they fear the politics of spending restraint.

Perhaps some history will help stiffen Republican spines. In 1995, Republicans proposed cuts to more than 200 programs including Medicare, Medicaid, and education. In 1996, they cut farm subsidies and reformed welfare, despite being demonized as heartless by liberals.

These efforts did not lead to a voter backlash. The Republicans lost a few seats in the 1996 congressional elections, but the results essentially ratified their 1994 victory. If budget cuts were as radioactive as often claimed, the GOP would have been pummeled in 1996. Michael Barone argued the GOP’s congressional victory in 1996 “looked narrow, but it was fundamental. It was based on a wider than generally appreciated acceptance of its policy thrusts.”

Retaining Congress in 1996 after two years of budget cutting was even more impressive given that the GOP had unappealing leaders in Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole. Mr. Dole lost his bid for the White House that year by 8 percentage points.

Also, the GOP had a large and vulnerable freshman class, many targeted for defeat by a big AFL-CIO ad campaign.

Despite these hurdles, nearly all hard-core GOP budget cutters were re-elected in 1996. Many won by larger vote margins than in 1994 including Reps. John Shadegg and Matt Salmon of Arizona, Joe Scarborough of Florida, David McIntosh and Mark Souder of Indiana, Steve Largent and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and Mark Neumann of Wisconsin.

Half of the reform-minded GOP freshman class re-elected in 1996 were in districts that went for Bill Clinton. For example, Tom Coburn — perhaps the most adamant budget cutter — was re-elected by a 10 percentage point margin even though his district went for Bill Clinton by 47 to 40 percent.

Or consider House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich of Ohio. He consistently won re-election by 2-1 margins despite being the chief architect of House spending cuts. In 1996, his district narrowly went for Mr. Clinton, yet he was re-elected with 64 percent of the vote. Lawmakers such as Mr. Kasich and Mr. Coburn proved budget cutting can be good politics when done within a broad reform agenda.

Today the GOP needs to rally behind new fiscal leaders and a new blueprint for reform, akin to the 1994 Contract with America. House conservatives have a new plan in the “Family Budget Protection Act” and they have new leaders such as Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona. What they need is for party leaders, such as Mr. DeLay, to embrace the new generation of reformers and put their ideas front and center in Republican policymaking.

Republicans need to look back to the 1990s to appreciate that budget cuts can be a winning strategy. And they need to look forward to realize complacency is no longer an option. Huge Katrina expenses, continued Iraq spending and rising entitlement costs means now is the time to launch a new Republican budget revolution.

Chris Edwards is the director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute.