Alexander's Column

What would a conservative Republican Party look like?

By Mark Alexander · May 5, 2006

“There are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” – James Madison

Well, that’s exactly what Indiana Representative Mike Pence and 100 fellow House Republicans are out to answer – how to make the Republican Party the home of constitutionality and conservatism once again.

That’s not to say there’s no conservatism in the GOP. As the titular head of the Republican Party, President George W. Bush has distinguished himself as a conservative when it comes to foreign policy and – all importantly – in restoring the judicial branch to its proper constitutional role through the appointment of constructionist-minded judges to federal benches. That said, President Bush has failed dismally when it comes to restoring, or even holding, government to its proper constitutionally limited role.

At present, Republicans control the executive and legislative branches of government, yet the size and regulatory role of the central government has grown unabated since President Bush took office. Of course, our nation’s vigorous response to the 9/11 attacks and our pre-emptive military response to Jihadis in the Middle East and elsewhere are responsible for some of that growth, but those necessary – and we might add, constitutionally mandated – expenditures have not been offset by spending cuts to domestic programs as Mr. Bush once promised would happen.

Today, the federal government spends $2.47 trillion – that’s 2,470 billions of dollars – each year. Adjusted for inflation, that’s 50 percent larger than the big-government Clinton-era budgets of only a decade ago, about which Republicans constantly complained. Of that, only 21 cents of every taxpayer dollar goes to national defense and homeland security. By contrast, 54 cents goes to entitlements like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and 8 cents goes to servicing the federal debt.

Meanwhile, the federal deficit will grow another $423 billion this year, raising the national debt to $8.28 trillion! While we’re not exactly “The sky is falling!” deficit hawks, it’s worth noting that big budgets and big deficits tighten the money supply, increasing the costs of investment and slowing economic growth and prosperity.

Enter the Republican Study Committee.

Founded in 1973 by Rep. Phil Crane to reinvigorate the GOP as the party of constitutional constructivism and social conservatism, the RSC became the premier mobilizing agent for House conservatives, dedicated to “a limited and Constitutional role for the federal government, a strong national defense, the protection of individual and property rights, and the preservation of traditional family values.”

In 2005, Rep. Mike Pence became the Committee’s chairman for the 109th Congress. He and his fellow conservatives have rallied around principles outlined in a speech last fall, “Another Time for Choosing,” picking up the central theme of Ronald Reagan’s famous 1964 speech “A Time for Choosing”.

Today, under Pence’s leadership, the RSC is the originator of the Contract with America: Renewed, created by Representatives Pence and Jeb Hensarling, with the aim of reviving the legislative agenda of Newt Gingrich’s original 1994 Contract with America. It was that agenda, readers will recall, that catapulted Republicans into control of Congress for the first time in over 40 years.

Under the FY 2007 Contract with America: Renewed budget proposal, overall spending would be reduced by more than $700 billion and a balanced federal budget realized by 2011. The RSC proposal would make real reductions in discretionary spending (without constitutionally-questionable inventions like a “line-item veto”), rein in entitlement spending and undergird the U.S. economy with sound, pro-growth tax policy. Under the RSC plan, more than 150 other federal programs would be eliminated outright. Foreign aid – which should serve as a tool for U.S. security and interests abroad, but often falls prey to special interests – would be cut by $31 billion over five years. The ignominious six-year Highway Bill, pork-laden with roads and bridges to nowhere, would be repealed. Medicare, whose trustees this week announced will go broke in 2018, would be limited to a more sustainable growth of 5.4 percent annually – a necessary first step in getting the federal government out of the entitlement business altogether.

As was the case in 1994, today’s Contract isn’t just about a return to fiscal conservatism; it includes a strong focus on social conservatism as well. Take, for instance, the Contract’s objectives with respect to the three sacred cows of taxpayer-funded social liberalism: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts – not reduction, elimination.

And that’s just the beginning.

In 1994, when the “Gingrich Revolution” launched the original Contract, Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress, and the nation was in the grip of the Clinton presidency. The Contract nationalized the election around its agenda. It proved a monumental success in capturing both Houses for the GOP, promoting increased trade, reforming welfare and containing the advance of big-government entitlement schemes under the Clinton regime.

Now, 12 years later, with Republican control of the Senate and the Presidency, true conservatism is again set for takeoff – so what’s keeping this would-be juggernaut on the launch pad?

Democrats? No, not really. In a word, it’s the leadership of the Republican Party.

Indeed, DC scuttlebutt says that Pence was told his Contract: Renewed would be DOA when it hit the House floor. Sadly, the party in control is all too vulnerable to Lord Acton’s famous maxim (“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”), using earmarks, pork-barreling and other budgetary quid pro quos to stay in power. As evidence, the Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) 2006 Congressional Pig Book identifies 9,963 pork projects in 11 appropriation bills, totaling $29 billion for FY 2006 alone. Since 2003, says CAGW, congressional pork has increased by a staggering 29 percent.

Crusading reformers while out of power, the GOP in power seems seduced by Washington’s tax-and-spend status quo. To make us feel better about it, it’s now called “compassionate conservatism” – an agenda thoroughly embodied in President Bush’s 2005 Nanny State of the Union.

Where’s the Republican leadership? It’s a mixed bag. In the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist has a 92 percent overall approval rating by the American Conservative Union (ACU). Assistant Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has a 96 percent ACU rating. Both have 95 percent ratings from Americans for Tax Reform (ATR). In the House, where members are more responsive to their constituents, Speaker Dennis Hastert has a 100 percent ACU rating, as does the new Majority Leader, John Boehner. The ACU gives House Whip Roy Blunt a 96. Their ATR ratings are 100, 100 and 95, respectively. That’s the good news.

But when it comes to government waste the story takes a different turn. CAGW gives Frist and McConnell a 66 and 69, respectively, while in the House, Hastert, Boehner and Blunt line up with scores of 50, 75 and 65. That’s an average score of 65 – an “F” – for the Republican congressional leadership. With government waste out of control even among the otherwise moderate-conservative leadership, and no leadership on fiscal conservatism coming from the White House, the RSC agenda faces a tough, maybe insurmountable, hill to climb.

In Rep. Pence’s words during the latest round of budget negotiations, “We must not let this moment pass. The American people long for Congress to reaffirm our commitment to fiscal discipline and reform and House conservatives are ready to stand with our leadership to do just that.”