Newly elected members of Congress are like extras on a long-running television show: Each comes onto the set hoping to stand out only to end up in the back of a crowd scene while dreary, pampered has-beens soak up the air time. As usual, this year’s triumphant freshmen class—a whopping 87 of them members of the new Republican majority—expected it to be different. They wanted to be conquering heroes, vowing to get serious about America’s debt and choke off the federal spending that everyone knows we cannot afford. Yet just a month into trying to fix the problem, they find themselves being accused of being the problem. Welcome to Washington, folks.
It is not for nothing that Capitol Hill is known as a graveyard for idealists, a fate our intrepid freshmen are finding difficult to escape. After running against the big spending ways of the Democrats during the last election, their new Republican leader infamously could not think of a single federal program that he himself wanted to cut. Their first meaningful vote as a newly elected representative is to raise the debt ceiling so that America can spend even more; failing to do so, they are told, will wreck our economic recovery and put millions out of work. Determined to scale down the size of government, they have come to learn that the biggest source of federal spending—entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare—cannot be touched lest they be depicted as putting sweet grandmothers into poverty. Among federal agencies, they have discovered that the Department of Defense spends by far the most federal taxpayer dollars. But try to cut a dime from the Pentagon’s budget, they are told, and they’ll find themselves in a campaign commercial next year holding hands with Osama bin Laden. They were admonished Wednesday by the New York Times opinion pages for trying to cut a mere $81 billion out of a trillion-dollar federal budget with the high-minded, change-the-tone rhetoric the paper Op-Ed section is known for: “ludicrous,” “out of control,” “blood sport” and “job-killing.” The last adjective is especially ironic, it being the very word that the Times less than a month ago chastised insensitive, uncivilized Republicans for using to describe Obamacare.
Those of us who have lived through budget battles in Washington know how this story is to end. The idealistic budget hawks decide they do not want to be characterized as Montgomery Burns meets Voldemort while Marie Antoinette and Cruella De Vil drop by. Facing reality and desiring an easy re-election, they make a few cosmetic cuts here and there—to the White House budget, to Congressional staffs, to a “freeze” on some salaries of some federal workers which the unions find their way out of—and then hope quietly the economy improves and the temperature of the voters cool. But that may not be how it works this year. Maybe, just maybe, members of the new House majority actually believe they have their seats to do something, not just to occupy a plush office. If that is the case, there are a few things they can do to show their intent.
Maybe, just maybe, members of the new House majority actually believe they have their seats to do something, not just to occupy a plush office. If that is the case, there are a few things they can do to show their intent.
Give President Obama what he asked for. In last month’s State of the Union address—anyone remember that?—the president envisioned cutting domestic discretionary spending by $400 billion. Among the proposals he said he would support: lowering the corporate tax rate; conducting a review of government regulations to weed out the duplicative and burdensome on business; imposing a freeze on annual domestic spending for five years; and enacting medical malpractice reform to cut down health care costs. Republicans should draft legislation on each and every one of these proposals and send them to the president for his signature. If he signs their bills, they can share the credit. If he doesn’t sign, they have an issue for the next election.
Call the Democrats’ bluff. During the State of the Union, the president amused lawmakers—and the voters—with tales of absurd regulations and duplicative, or unnecessary federal agencies. Obama said he supported a reform plan to consolidate departments and agencies; Republicans should take him up on it. It is time to resurrect an idea first broached by Ronald Reagan: eliminating Cabinet departments. The Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development were all once part of a single federal agency—the Department of Health, Education, & Welfare. Why not propose returning to that practice? There is no more tangible sign that members of Congress mean business this time than seeing padlocks and for sale signs placed on government buildings. And Obama just might go along: what if a liberal Democrat were to become the first president to actually reduce the size of the federal government?
Address the unaddressable: entitlements. Both parties know that the crippling costs of Social Security and Medicare are unsustainable. With voters demanding reform and budget cutting, this year may be the ideal moment to put forward realistic proposals to finally deal with the fiscal mess Washington has made. If nothing else, your children will thank you for it.
Get serious about the Department of Defense. When I worked in the Pentagon, in a small office of less than a dozen people, we had 4,000 hi-liters on hand (Not a single one of them was yellow.) From our comparatively small office account, we purchased more lampshades than we had lamps. We had an entire wall of brand-new printer cartridges that did not fit any of our printers. None of them could go back for refunds; that, I was told, was not how it was done. I saw departments give millions of dollars to public relations consultants who were personal friends and who produced little to show for their efforts. The Pentagon’s comptroller employed a number of experienced speechwriters, each earning more than $100,000 a year, and yet never delivered a single speech that anyone could remember. In short: any legislator who says with a straight face that not a single penny can be spared from the mammoth defense budget while cutting funds for federal education or health care programs not only lacks seriousness but also a modicum of political sense. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, for one, seems to know this, as to his credit does Secretary Bob Gates.
It is too soon to tell if this Congress is going to be different than all the ones that went before it. But if it isn’t, there is a large, loud group of tea drinkers who have demonstrated no reluctance to toss them aside. Business as usual may not be an option this time, which means go bold, GOP freshmen, or go home.
Matt Latimer is the author of the New York Times bestseller, SPEECH-LESS: Tales of a White House Survivor. He was deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush and chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld.