September 20, 2005
By Michael Franc
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
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
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
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
Hurricane of Entitlements
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