A Mandate for Ownership

COMMENTARY Conservatism

A Mandate for Ownership

Jan 13th, 2005 3 min read
Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.


Edwin J. Feulner is the founder and president of The Heritage Foundation.

The voters spoke loud and clear last year, handing President Bush a mandate to replace big government with a true ownership society. Now, we've handed him a "Mandate" to help achieve this goal: The Heritage Foundation's Mandate for Leadership.

Heritage has published several editions of "Mandate" since 1980. This year's is by far the shortest, for a good reason: In the past, we needed to explain to policymakers why conservative principles should form the building blocks of policy.

But in the 2004 election, the American people overwhelmingly endorsed conservative ideas. On the campaign trail, President Bush promised to reform Social Security, expand free trade, fix the tax code and reduce federal spending and regulation. Bush earned more than 60.6 million votes for that platform -- the most for any candidate ever.

So the 2005 "Mandate" serves primarily as a detailed checklist of the measures conservative politicians need to take to build an "Ownership Society." It also can serve as a guidebook for voters, so they can make sure their representatives are living up to their conservative promises.

Some haven't been lately.

In the late '90s, large government surpluses fueled an irresponsible jump in federal spending. Adjusted for inflation, spending has increased 25 percent since 1996. Unfortunately that boom shows no sign of abating. Today the government spends more than $20,000 per household.

But now, elected to a second term and with a growing conservative majority in both houses of Congress, President Bush has vowed to begin changing this state of affairs. It will be a major undertaking.

For example, we know already the government's recent spending spree must be paid for eventually. Right now, we're borrowing the money. But some day, we'll have to raise taxes to pay for it -- unless we start to trim spending now.

President Bush promised to cut the federal budget deficit in half in five years, and he's already taken a sensible step to make good on that pledge: He's drafted a budget that would hold 2006 spending to less than a 1 percent increase. Even that modest goal is likely to be demonized as a series of "radical cuts" by lawmakers on the left and their allies in the mainstream media.

"Mandate" explains that lawmakers should go further and revamp the entire federal budget process, as a way to impose spending caps and encourage fiscal restraint. It also calls for a Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, which would restrict future spending increases to the inflation rate plus the rate of population growth.

It also would make sense to improve congressional oversight. One way to do that would be to make all proposed congressional actions available on the Web at least a day before they're voted on. In addition, we should force lawmakers to abide by the same accounting standards they apply to private businesses, and Congress should regularly review all the programs it passes to make sure they're actually working.

Of course, the major element of building a long-term ownership society is Social Security reform. President Bush has pushed for this since he was governor of Texas. "Mandate" explains how to make it a reality.

We should allow taxpayers to invest a portion of their Social Security tax payments in accounts they would own and control. This approach would let everyone, even those of modest means, build a nest egg for a comfortable retirement.

Plus, the system would be fairer to those who die between 50 and 70. As it stands, many face the prospect of having contributed to Social Security throughout their working lives, and getting few or no benefits when they die. If these people had personal retirement accounts, at least they would know they had real wealth to pass on to future generations.

"Mandate" also explains how policymakers can improve welfare programs, revise 2003's patently unaffordable Medicare entitlement and expand affordable health-care coverage -- all critical steps on the road to reform.

At the same time, this year's edition also provides plenty of foreign policy advice. It explains what the federal government must do to effectively protect the homeland, update the military for the 21st century and improve America's image in foreign countries.

Back in 1996, President Bill Clinton announced, "The era of big government is over." Not quite. But, with conservative leadership, it will be soon.

Let's get to work.

Ed Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a conservative think tank based in Washington.