March 21, 2006

March 21, 2006 | Commentary on Federal Budget

Conservatives' Budget Offers Hope

On that memorable day in the spring of 1995, the entire House Republican establishment exuberantly embraced the most stringent budget Washington had seen in decades. Designed by former House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (R.-Ohio), the plan balanced the government's books in seven years by slowing the inexorable growth of federal spending and offered much needed tax relief to families and investors.

Vermont Socialist Bernie Sanders labeled Kasich's plan "crass," "outrageous," "vulgar" and "pathetic." Raving California liberal Pete Stark (D.) predicted the "cuts" would leave "our economy and society ... devastated."

But on that day 11 years ago, House Republican moderates rejected this nay-saying.

"I have waited 20 years for this day," Chris Shays (R.-Conn.) said, "working and waiting for the opportunity to vote finally for a budget that will get our financial house in order."

Old GOP Priorities

Many defended Kasich's budget in explicitly moral terms by invoking images of their children or grandchildren struggling with unsustainable federal debt. "The legacy of chronic deficit spending," Rep. David Hobson (R.-Ohio) said, "is passed on to our children as a $4.9 trillion national debt." Added Connecticut moderate Nancy Johnson (R.), "It is imperative that Congress regain control over our spending practices and leave our children an economically strong America."

They stared down the special interests seeking to protect their corner of the federal budget. Former two-term Delaware Gov. Mike Castle (R.) lambasted politicians who "love to talk about making the tough choices and setting priorities" but retreat when faced with these choices. Instead, Castle urged his colleagues to focus on "the tremendous deficit ... and debt we have accumulated, and all the payments on that debt and the impact which that has on the economy."

In the end, Kasich's budget prevailed with 238 votes, attracting support from eight Democrats and all but one Republican. A decade later, the conventional wisdom among Republican strategists is that this assault more closely resembled Pickett's Charge than the charge up San Juan Hill. After the government shutdown that followed, many of Kasich's staunchest allies retreated like Thomas Paine's "summer soldiers" and "sunshine patriots" from their commitment to limited government.

But the overwhelming majority of Kasich's supporters did not suffer politically from their vote. Indeed, many prospered. His supporters that day included 11 future senators, two future governors, a future House Majority Leader, a future Speaker of the House, as well as the entire current crop of House committee chairmen.

This history matters because the members of the Republican Study Committee (RSC) recently unveiled a budget plan modeled consciously on that 1995 Kasich budget.

The RSC plan would balance the federal budget in five years. It would eliminate more than 150 ineffective programs, slash foreign aid, limit Medicare growth, terminate hundreds of duplicative education and job-training programs, repeal the federal gas tax, block grant Medicaid and overhaul agricultural subsidies.

In total, the RSC plan would reduce spending on non-defense items by $691 billion over five years even as it extends the President's pro-growth tax relief.

"If we do nothing," RSC Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana and RSC Budget Taskforce Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas explained, "future lawmakers will have to either raise taxes to obscene levels, or deny funding to literally every other federal program regardless of its priority -- defense, border security, veterans and so forth."

Moderates Flip-Flop

So where are those determined Republican moderates today? Mike Castle, who once excoriated politicians for refusing to make tough choices, spoke for his moderate colleagues when he announced that he will oppose even the President's exceedingly modest budget plan.

Meanwhile, 60 House Republicans, moderates and conservatives alike, sent a letter to House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R.-Iowa) emphasizing their opposition to the President's proposal to trim a meager $37 billion from Medicare over the next five years.

What changed? Democrats have been the model of consistency these past 11 years. The rhetoric, guiding principles and policy ideas they offered in 1995 haven't changed one iota. Moderate Blue Dogs accept spending restraint, but only if it is accompanied by tax increases. Liberal Democrats still defend every penny of federal spending, and they demand massive tax increases to underwrite it.

The movement has occurred entirely on the Republican side, where the moderates and even many conservatives have accepted Big Government.

Pence, Hensarling and their allies are telling us that Americans need not succumb to a debilitating future of European levels of taxation, unfathomably large budget deficits, and weakened national and homeland security.

Let's hope they're right.

Mike Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

Related Issues: Federal Budget

First appeared in Human Events Online