Nearly two decades ago, scholar Robert Higgs addressed a simple question of paramount importance to lawmakers as they fashion the federal response to Katrina: What explains the inexorable growth in the size and scope of government?
Higgs theorized that a "genuine crisis" such as a war or an economic depression "has been the occasion for another ratchet toward Bigger Government." Lawmakers under pressure to respond in real time inevitably choose the path of least resistance - they simply expand existing governmental programs and approaches.
Indeed, over the last decade Congress has, through a steady stream of emergency-relief measures, created what amounts to yet another entitlement program whereby the federal government acts as insurer of first resort to the victims of floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, and terrorist acts.
To many, this climate of urgency somehow exempts Congress from its responsibility to make room for all the new spending and expanded authority by scrutinizing and jettisoning the least worthy activities of government.
Yet it is precisely during a crisis such as Katrina that Congress is best able to separate the government's wheat from the chaff. Wasteful and redundant programs, pork projects and misplaced priorities stand out in sharp contrast to those necessary activities that only government can do. Consider, for example, that several years ago Louisiana's elected officials secured $475,000 for a bike trail atop New Orleans' ill-fated levee. Or that between 2002 and 2004 its congressional delegation delivered over 350 pork projects valued in excess of $430 million for low-priority items such as community centers, drug-treatment facilities, after-school programs, road and trolley projects, and wastewater treatment facilities.
Is it even possible for Congress and the White House to prune the dead weight of government at moments such as this? If history is any guide, there is hope. I'll cite three examples:
In 1939, as President Franklin Roosevelt was increasing military spending to meet the twin threats of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, he instructed his budget director to accommodate this new spending by "cutting [non-military] programs to the bone." As a result, between 1939 and 1944 domestic spending fell by a remarkable 37 percent. Entire New Deal-era programs were purged. According to former Bush Budget Director Mitch Daniels, in today's dollars these cuts would be equivalent to "closing up shop at HHS, the Department of Education, HUD, and the Departments of Justice, Energy, Agriculture, Treasury, Interior and Labor combined."
In the early 1941, the Senate created a special committee, chaired by Senator Harry Truman, to investigate wasteful spending within the military. Over the next three years the committee held hundreds of hearings and identified millions of dollars in military cost overruns.
Finally, during a 1995 debate over an aid package to victims of the Northridge, Calif., earthquake and the Oklahoma City bombing, California Republican David Dreier set forth what I'll label the Dreier Doctrine for Emergency Spending. "When we want to provide emergency assistance," Dreier said, "we are only going to do it if we find offsets." For a while, the Dreier Doctrine prevailed whenever emergency-spending bills reached the House floor.
The lawmakers who champion these attempts to restrain the federal Leviathan tend to prosper politically. Roosevelt is widely revered as a gifted wartime leader who reshaped government as needed to win the war. Truman's diligence in exposing extensive fraud and price gouging so enhanced his political reputation that FDR chose him as his running mate in 1944. And Dreier's stand on behalf of offsets didn't prevent him from ascending to the chairmanship of the powerful House Rules Committee.
Will the congressional response to Katrina include outside-the-box policy innovations consistent with the principles of limited government and President Bush's "Ownership Society"? Will House and Senate leaders embrace reforms that encourage individuals to rely less on government and take more responsibility for their health care, retirement, housing, and education?
Some members of Congress get it.
Senators Tom Coburn (Okla.) and John McCain (Ariz.) laid down the gauntlet to their colleagues in a blunt press release last week. "If Congress wants to inspire the American people to continue to make sacrifices," they said, "we need to be making sacrifices of our own." Specifically, they urged their colleagues to "deny themselves a few of the comforts of political office and refrain from directing tax dollars to special projects in their states that might help their political campaigns but not necessarily the country as a whole." Similarly, Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas and several of his colleagues tried unsuccessfully to offset the $62 billion in emergency Katrina-related spending with an across-the-board spending cut of 2.8 percent over the next five years.
On the policy front, Senate Policy Committee Chairman Jon Kyl of Arizona is circulating among senators an inspiring list of policy recommendations to help the victims of Katrina. Kyl understands that free-market policies in areas as diverse as health care, education, tax relief, energy, housing, trade, and the environment are essential to recovery process. Heritage Foundation experts have also compiled a list of specific recommendations.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal's David Wessel declared that Katrina put the final nail in the coffin of small government. "Preaching self-reliance right now," he said, "won't work." Senator Clinton chimed in, dubbing the Ownership Society Bush's "you're on your own society."
It is up to this Congress and president to prove the Clintons and the Wessels of the world wrong. Can they do it? History teaches us that those courageous enough to think outside the box often reap great personal political gain.
Mike Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in National Review Online