Cato Books: “New Handbook for Congress”

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For those who go into government to improve the lives of their fellow citizens, the hardest lesson to accept may be that often there is no good reason for Congress to do anything about a problem—such as education, crime, or church burning," the Cato Institute reminds legislators in the Cato Handbook for Congress, published at the opening of the 106th Congress.

The lesson appeared to have been learned in 1994, when the "Republican Revolution" turned Democrats out of power. However, the past five years have been a great disappointment for those who expected the Republican Congress to follow through on its promise to return to limited government. The Republican Contract with America has become a contract on taxpayers who have to pay for a still-climbing federal budget. As the Handbook points out, "The 105th Congress alone passed the largest highway-pork bill ever, revived flagging federal support for arts programs, brought farm subsidies back to life, widened federal involvement in local schools, gave another $18 billion to the International Monetary Fund, and loaded everything but the kitchen sink into a 4,000-page budget bill."

The third edition of the Handbook includes 61 chapters covering a broad spectrum of public policy issues, from urgent action items such as Social Security privatization, tax reform, and corporate welfare to term limits, strengthening civil liberties, abolishing federal agencies, regulatory reform, and deregulation. The Handbook details the road to fundamental reforms that can improve the lives of Americans by reducing the size and scope of the federal government.

Noting that "the nature of government is to grow," Cato reminds members of the 106th Congress that while "the Constitution of the United States is the best device ever created for limiting government," over the years "we have let the federal government exceed the bounds that the Founders wisely placed on it."

One area in which the government has exceeded those bounds is Social Security. Just about all Americans agree that Social Security must be reformed, although they disagree about the method. Michael Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at Cato, advises Congress to allow young workers to redirect their payroll taxes to individually owned, privately invested retirement accounts. Privatization will provide a better deal for young workers, promote savings and economic growth, help the poor, and provide freedom of choice and control.

Helping Americans regain control over their lives is a theme that runs throughout the book. Stephen Moore, director of fiscal policy studies, contends that Congress should cut taxes at least $1 trillion over five years. Overhaul of the tax code should include repeal of the 1990 and 1993 tax increases, a cut in the payroll tax rate, and abolition of both the capital gains and the estate tax. In addition, Congress should replace the income tax with a national sales tax. "Congress has a $1 trillion opportunity in 1999," Moore writes. "It should act immediately to roll back taxes for two reasons. First, today's record taxes are now the greatest single threat to the current economic expansion. And second, tax cuts are an essential preemptive measure against the advocates of bigger government, who wish to claim the surplus funds for new federal programs."

In foreign affairs, the Handbook advises Congress to support the concept of a national defense based on strategic independence and diplomacy based on prudent nonintervention. Ivan Eland, director of defense policy studies at Cato, reminds Congress that it should act as a much-needed check on the executive branch's reflexive tendency to expand the global political and military role of the United States. One way it can do that is by reducing the budget authorization for national defense by $100 billion—from a planned sum of about $275 billion to $175 billion (in fiscal year 2000 dollars). Gary Dempsey, foreign policy analyst at Cato, recommends that Congress withdraw all U.S. troops from Bosnia and urge the Western European Union to expand its military responsibility for Bosnia. To deal with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, Eland says that Congress should "refuse to provide funds for U.S. military presence and interventions overseas that are not required to defend U.S. vital interests and could result in catastrophic retaliatory attacks on the U.S. homeland by terrorists using weapons of mass destruction."

With the presidential election looming next year, the Handbook calls for an end to restrictions on political speech. Congress should deregulate the campaign finance system, reject "voluntary" spending limits, and reject calls to eliminate political action committees. Bradley A. Smith, professor of law at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, and an adjunct scholar of Cato, concludes that "efforts to ‘fix' the campaign finance system have been bad for government and bad for American citizens, who have a right to speak and be active in public affairs."

David Boaz, Cato's executive vice president, says that Congress should abolish the Department of Education and return education to the state, local, or family level, as provided by the Constitution. "Education," he writes, "is a perfect example of one major theme of this Handbook: that even many vitally important things in American society are not the province of the federal government."

As Tom G. Palmer, Cato's director of special projects, says, "Limited government is one of the greatest accomplishments of humanity. It is imperfectly enjoyed by only a portion of the human race, and, where it is enjoyed, its tenure is ever precarious. The experience of the 20th century is surely witness to the insecurity of constitutional government and to the need for courage in achieving it and vigilance in maintaining it." The Cato Handbook for Congress is one tool in that battle.

The Cato Handbook for Congress is distributed to all members of Congress and to journalists and is available for purchase from the Cato Store. The complete text of the Handbook is available and fully searchable.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 1999 edition of Cato Policy Report.
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