Tom DeLay's predecessor talks about how to reclaim it.
The Wall Street Journal
Monday, January 30, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST
As House Republicans prepare to elect a new majority leader this Thursday, I decided to chat with a man who used to hold that job. Dick Armey stepped down when he left Congress in 2003 and was replaced by his fellow Texan Tom DeLay, whose recent troubles created the current vacancy. Mr. Armey has a lot to get off his chest about how his party has gone off track.
Mr. Armey, a former economics professor, vividly recalls the House leadership meeting in late 2001 that prompted his decision to retire. Afterwards he returned to his office and wrote down his summary of how he saw the GOP Congress behaving: "We come to this town and we do things we ought not to be doing in order to stay in the majority so we can do things we ought to be doing that we never get around to doing." A few weeks later the man who was a chief drafter of the 1994 Contract with America announced he was leaving office.
Mr. Armey's departure had consequences. In late 2003, Mr. DeLay and his whip team twisted arms and held a late-night vote open for three hours to pass a costly prescription drug benefit for seniors. The year before, Mr. Armey had tried to pass a more modest benefit but he coupled it with significant reforms of Medicare that would have improved its solvency. The new bill ditched most of the reforms in favor of "demonstration projects" that then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson admitted he never expected would become reality.
The prescription drug bill may have temporarily taken Medicare "off the table" for the 2004 election, but Republicans will be bedeviled for decades by its rising costs and complexity. At current growth rates, Medicare, its cousin Medicaid and Social Security will consume a fifth of the nation's gross national product by 2020. That number represents the current size of the entire federal government.
Nor have Republicans learned much from that mistake. President Bush and the GOP Congress continue to preside over the largest expansion of government since LBJ's Great Society. Economic growth fueled by the Bush tax cuts created a 22% surge in federal revenue over the past two years. But even that flow is barely keeping pace with spending, which went up by 8% in 2005 and is set to increase by 9% in 2006. When the good times slow down, no one expects it will be easy to slam the brakes on spending.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks masked the growing disquiet of the Republican base over the direction of domestic policy for several years. No one wanted to be accused of taking their eye off the ball on terrorism, but as time passed the runaway growth of government could no longer be ignored. "Our political base expects elected leaders to cut both tax rates and spending, because they know the real tax burden is reflected in the overall size of government," Mr. Armey told me. "The easiest thing for a disgusted base to do in November is stay home. I've seen it happen before."
The base's despair is crystallizing around the issue of special-interest earmarks, home-district projects that are often secretly dropped into legislation at the last minute without scrutiny. Scott Lilly, until recently the chief Democratic aide on the House Appropriations Committee, said the lust for earmarks has become an "obsession" of members from both parties. "That's all they do," he told the Washington Post. Last year, the House Appropriations Committee received 10,000 requests for earmarks on one spending bill alone--more than 25 projects per House member. Mr. Lilly says it's amazing the overall number of congressional earmarks last year was held to 14,000, although that number is up from barely 2,000 five years ago.
What accounts for the dramatic increase in the number of earmarks? Jonathan Rauch, a columnist for the National Journal, says that after Republicans saw how difficult it was to reduce the size of government during the 1990s, Mr. DeLay and White House political adviser Karl Rove adopted a new model: First, build a political machine that would win a secure majority, and then tackle entitlement spending using free-market reforms.
But the short-term price of building that machine was more spending to draw supporters and ward off political criticism. As part of legislative log-rolling Democrats got their share: about 45% of all earmarks. Entitlement spending exploded along with military spending. In 2004 Republicans held the White House and gained seats in both houses of Congress, but soon they found they had created a monster as much as a machine.
President Bush's proposed Social Security reform collapsed due to bungled marketing and a failure to build solid political support for the concept. After that failure, Mr. DeLay famously claimed "there is simply no fat left to cut in the federal budget." As Mr. Rauch points out, the ex-leader really meant "it had no political fat, and he was right. Every dollar now served a constituent group in DeLay's carefully built machine."
Now that machine is misfiring, and for some members it has become a political liability in the wake of the Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham scandals. Mr. Armey says he hopes GOP members now see the wisdom of an old adage, "When we act like Republicans, we win. Otherwise, we lose in the end." He notes that each of the three candidates for majority leader is pledging to restore the GOP's credibility on spending restraint and ethics. But he worries that the winner "will make only that change that is necessary to preserve majority status, and not make the changes that will save the Republican soul."
Although politics is largely about power, there are other dimensions. Senator Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who along with John McCain now promises to challenge every earmark on the Senate floor, says that ultimately good policy is good politics. "The Founders taught us the best policy was limited government that didn't presume men were angels," he told me.
At a time when the late British theologian C.S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" has become a hit movie, Mr. Coburn urges his colleagues to recall Lewis's warnings about what befalls those who would seek what he called the Inner Ring of power. "The more those in Congress seek only to penetrate each ring in order to gather power or prestige, the more they lose sight of why most voters entrusted them with their position in the first place," Mr. Coburn says. "Once voters catch on that is your primary ambition, your days accumulating power are ending."
Tom DeLay has at times realized the costs Republicans incurred in following his machine model. Last fall, he appeared before a group of social conservatives in Washington after he had been forced to step down and acknowledged "that I often was short-sighted and strayed from the true path of limited government." He pledged he would return to first principles if he reclaimed his post as majority leader. But now that he is permanently out of the leadership, he is running for re-election to his House seat by relying on the principle of pork. He regales audiences in his district with lists of earmarks he has secured for them and touts his seat on the "favor factory" called the Appropriations Committee.
This Thursday, House Republicans will have to decide if they want to continue to more or less follow Mr. DeLay's model of governance or return to the principles that helped them win control of Congress back in 1994. "Most want to recapture the dream," Mr. Armey says of his former colleagues. "But even those who don't should realize they now face greater political danger by being too timid than by being too bold."