As the 109th Congress settles into its normal rhythms, Republican leaders face crucial decisions on the policy direction of their party. After 10 years in power, the exact things that Republicans said were wrong with prior Congresses have become worse under their control. The GOP is responsible for record high deficits and their policies have intruded even more into state, local, and private activities. Now many Republicans are saying that even the limited spending restraints in the new Bush budget are dead on arrival.
The reformist spirit of 1994 has been lost on many careerist GOP politicians who have burrowed into the Washington power structure and now resist change. The GOP’s Contract with America promised the “end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public’s money.” But such sentiments sound quaint after the 31 percent increase in federal spending during the past four years.
Other declarations of the incoming Republicans have been long forgotten. In 1995, Bill Frist of Tennessee went to Senate floor to denounce Bill Clinton’s budget policies, arguing for “adjustment, reform, and downsizing the federal government.” He charged that “without a balanced budget agreement…there will be profoundly negative consequences.” Today, Majority Leader Frist and his party preside over a deficit that is twice as big as in 1995.
The GOP now works directly against many of their original reform goals:
Federalism. In his first speech as the new Senate majority leader, Bob Dole said that his main goal was to “dust of the Tenth Amendment and restore it to its rightful place in our Constitution.” But contrary to the Tenth Amendment, the federal government continues to invade state policy areas and criminal law enforcement. The number of federal criminal laws soared 33 percent in the past decade;
Term Limits. The Contract with America promised congressional term limits to create “citizen legislators.” But the GOP has long abandoned that goal in favor of incumbency protection. The 2004 election produced a 98 percent reelection rate;
Cutting Programs. In 1995, House Republicans proposed abolishing more than 200 programs and three federal departments, including the Department of Education. But no substantial program has been terminated, and federal education spending has doubled in the past six years;
Pork Barrel Politics. Republicans used to denounce Democratic pork barrel spending, but recent omnibus spending bills have contained twice as many earmarked spending projects as Democratic bills used to contain;
Government Health Care. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey attributed the GOP’s 1994 victory to public distaste for Hillary Clinton’s big government health care plan. But the Republicans closed out their decade in power by passing the largest expansion in government health care since the 1960s with the prescription drug bill.
The GOP’s sell-out on reform is particularly sad given that the public supported much of the Republican agenda. Voters strongly supported term limits, and they did not revolt when the House pushed for cuts to Medicare, education, housing, Amtrak, and other sensitive programs. Indeed, voters returned Republicans to the majority in subsequent elections, and polls showed that public approval of Congress soared in the years after the GOP taking control.
Republicans also had a sympathetic Supreme Court to buttress their reform efforts. On federalism, the 1995 Lopez decision struck down a federal law on guns near schools, affirming that there are constitutional limits to federal intrusions into state and local affairs. The GOP could have used the landmark ruling to eliminate other unconstitutional programs, but they missed the opportunity.
When the GOP does follow through on reform, it achieved positive and enduring results. Welfare reform in 1996 is the best example. Initially, the GOP’s welfare proposals were denounced by opponents in vicious terms, with a number of House members even comparing the Republicans to the Nazis. But the GOP stuck to its guns and achieved dramatic results — welfare rolls dropped 60 percent, earnings of low-income single mothers rose, and the percentage of U.S. children living in poverty fell after reform.
This is where the 109th Congress comes in. President Bush wants to revive the spirit of 1994 and get Congress to think big on reform. Most importantly, he wants to upgrade the old-fashioned Social Security program with a retirement plan based on personal savings. Shifting from federal handouts to personal responsibility worked for welfare, and it should work for retirement as well.
Predictably, some weak-kneed Republicans are saying that such changes are too politically risky. But that’s not how we read the policy lessons of the past decade. If the party sticks together on pro-market reforms, it achieves successes that pay lasting political dividends. GOP veterans — and former President Clinton — still proudly trumpet the success of welfare reform. That should not be forgotten as Congress ponders further reforms to the welfare state with Social Security.