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As Simple as One, Two, Three

A legislative strategy for the House Republicans.

Nov 15, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 09 • By JEFF BERGNER
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Republicans have won control of the House and have gained several seats in the Senate. What will the Republicans do? Will they simply nibble at the edge of big government orthodoxy, fearing that Senate inaction would doom more ambitious efforts? Or will they act, understanding that the only steps capable of reversing our slide into bankruptcy are so large as to be outside the comfort zone of the political class in Washington? Will they make good on the commitment to economic growth on which they ran and were elected? 

As Simple as One, Two, Three

This is a problem of political courage, to be sure. But it is also a practical political challenge. It is simply not realistic to expect a political party to act against its own interest in survival. In moments of high drama a party may act on principle against self-interest; but as a rule, it must find ways to reconcile principle and politics. 

The challenge before the Republicans is to fashion a legislative agenda combining boldness and prudence, a set of principled policy reforms that commands public support. Republicans need an agenda that is both radical and popular (as opposed to the Obama agenda, which was radical and unpopular). An agenda that is more than high-sounding-yet-empty reforms to the legislative process. Only concrete actions to address the nation’s problems will do. What follows is a modest proposal for squaring this circle, an agenda as simple as one, two, three.

One Tough Vote

Pass an appropriation bill that returns nondefense discretionary spending to 2008 levels. Discretionary spending has exploded in the past two years; outlays have grown from $1.134 trillion in 2008 to $1.408 trillion in 2010, a 24 percent increase, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget. Discretionary federal spending has grown by one-fourth in the past 24 months. Even Barack Obama knows this is not sustainable. That’s why his 2011 budget proposes a spending “freeze” at $1.414 trillion—a bit like stealing your neighbor’s horses, then insisting that everyone should just keep what they have. A freeze is not a serious response to our budgetary problems.

If we are unable to cut deeply into spending, we cannot balance the federal budget. Even massive tax increases could not squeeze enough out of the taxpayers to do this. If we do not act promptly to cut spending, we will inevi-tably be forced to move to a brand new type of tax, a value added tax, to be superimposed on the income tax. 

Setting the level of federal spending is essentially a legislative function, and thus more achievable than initiatives dependent on the president. It would be easier with a president willing to help. But the first step is to pass a clear Republican budget. Pass it and see which Democrats sign on. 

Republicans can learn from the budget impasse in 1995. Here are a few tips:

♦ Roll all spending for fiscal year 2011, including defense, into one bill. Do not let Democrats have separate votes on defense and homeland security spending. Given the trend toward large continuing resolutions in recent years, this shouldn’t be too hard.

♦ Do it with fanfare. Call it the “We’re all in this together, anti-bailout, anti-incumbent, anti-lobbyist, anti-special pleading, anti-Washington, save the country from bankruptcy” bill of 2011.

♦ Treat it like a national referendum. Many Americans are living on less than they earned last year—many families, businesses, localities, and states. Are we to suppose that only Washington cannot do this? Bring in the talk show hosts. Nationalize the issue. Offset the president’s bully pulpit.

♦ Include a rescission of unspent funds from the unpopular economic stimulus bill.

♦ Be prepared for blowback. You will be called “heartless” and “dangerous” and worse. You will be accused of “using a meat cleaver when a scalpel is needed.” This is the standard Democratic game. But you will be called the same if you try to cut current spending by a dime. You will be criticized anyway; why not take a principled stand?

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