Political Hay

Use It or Lose It

The one thing Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean can teach the new Republican majority.

By 12.27.10

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Soon the three-fifths Democratic majorities will be gone and Nancy Pelosi will surrender her gavel. The triumvirate of Obama, Pelosi, and Reid will be compelled to share power with newly elected Republicans. Before we bid Pelosi's vanquished minions a fond farewell, however, let us pause to reflect on their handiwork even if we can't admire it.

Theirs is a legacy of bigger government and deeper debt, an inexorable march toward a health care system and an economy that more closely resembles the social democracies of Europe than the American constitutional republic, of deem and pass tactics despite near-one-party rule.

But one need not share the Democrats' principles to respect their commitment to them. A significant portion of the country was already in rebellion before the final price tag on the stimulus package was set. Politically, the handwriting was on the wall when Republicans won a special election in Massachusetts nearly eleven months before the midterms: the health care bill was an electoral disaster waiting to happen and the voters were standing athwart Obama yelling, "Stop!"

Yet Obama and the Democrats, briefly stunned by the "Scott heard 'round the world," shook it off and pressed ahead. The result was the biggest expansion of the federal government since the creation of Medicare in 1965, a legislative victory for which the Democrats risked their majorities.

When was the last time Republicans took similar risks in the battle over the size and scope of the federal government? What do conservatives have to show for a Republican president, House, and Senate from 2005-07? Very little besides John Roberts and Sam Alito, who without conservative outcry might have instead been Alberto Gonzales and Harriet Miers.

Howard Dean said of having a majority in Congress, "If you don't use it, you lose it." The Democrats lost theirs but leave Obamacare behind. The Republicans didn't use theirs and lost it anyway.

Oh, the Republicans have pledged to repeal Obamacare. But when is the last time Republicans repealed any major liberal program? FDR boasted that "no damn politician" would ever touch Social Security. Given the way Republicans ran from a plan to reform the retirement program with personal accounts while they had a 55-45 majority in the Senate, Tom DeLay bringing down the Hammer in the House, and George W. Bush in the Oval Office, can FDR's claim be disputed?

Democrats believe that for all the GOP's bluster about health care repeal, in an election cycle or two "no damn politician" will treat Obamacare differently than Social Security. Republicans can't even get rid of the National Endowment for the Arts or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. When one Republican Congress sharply curtailed farm subsidies, another Republican Congress restored them.

Although Bush held the line on taxes, the upward trajectory on spending has been almost constant: No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, the Wall Street bailout, the stimulus program, and Obamacare.

Even after the health care juggernaut stalled plans for an immigration amnesty or cap and trade, the Democrats came back from their "shellacking" ready to pass more legislation in the lame-duck congressional session. They repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," ratified New START, and added new deficit spending. Bur for a handful of votes in the Senate they would have passed the DREAM Act and a substantial minority of House Democrats was prepared to let taxes rises across the board rather than keep the tax cuts in place for the top 3 percent of income earners.

The Gingrich Congress tried to control Medicare spending. A Republican Senate and bipartisan conservative majority in the House passed the Reagan supply-side economic program. But not since the "Do Nothing" Congress that served alongside Harry Truman has a Republican majority been willing to risk failure at the ballot box to achieve success at preserving limited government.

Will the new Republican majority in the House and the bigger, more conservative Republican minority in the Senate be different? Will the GOP heed the demands of the Tea Party movement, undo liberalism's gains of the past two years, and restore the country to its constitutional foundations?

Republicans have been invited back to power. For once they should learn from the Pelosi Congress and heed Howard Dean: If they don't use it, they'll lose it.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.