We were struck last week by a pair of instances of Republicans doing what Republicans do—one encouraging, one not so much. On the encouraging side, we had Sen. Tom Coburn, who never fails to lift a faltering conservative heart. He gave an interview to a blogger for the Washington Post, though we won’t hold that against him. In it he said many wise things, particularly about a scenario that like visions of sugarplums dances in many be-pillowed Republican heads.
“What happens if Romney wins and Republicans control both chambers [of Congress]?” he asked rhetorically. “Do they have the courage to do what it takes to fix the country? It’s kind of their last chance. If they’re given the favor of control and they don’t act on it, why should you ever trust them again?”
His answer: “You shouldn’t. It’ll be the death knell of the Republican party. They controlled it all for four years under Bush and grew the government . . . [and] went against the very tenets of what they said they believe.”
Sen. Coburn is a man of rare candor, but it’s not just the candor that’s refreshing—it’s his willingness to isolate the great promise and the great danger that Republicans confront this fall. If the voters hand them control of Congress as well as the White House, what will they do with it? It may not be their last chance, as Coburn says, but the answer will decide whether this generation of Republicans ever grows to maturity as a national party of economic freedom and opportunity.
Which brings us to the second, not-so-encouraging instance. Last week a majority of congressional Republicans joined with Democrats to renew for three years the charter of the Export-Import Bank, a New Deal relic that in theory helps American exporters by, among other things, offering loans to foreign traders to buy American products. Although the Ex-Im Bank is a quasi-private institution, its loans are guaranteed by the taxpayers, making it a prime instrument of industrial policy, or corporate statism, or state capitalism (choose your epithet). By favoring one company over another and choosing to subsidize one industry and not another—the faddish renewable energy field is a particular favorite at the moment—the bank lets the government, specifically the Congress, pick winners and losers in the marketplace. It mixes politics and capital in ways that Republicans customarily claim to abhor.
But not this time. The bank is a favorite not only of Democrats, who after all have no principled claim against industrial policy, but also of the big business lobby. The National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce strongly backed the renewal, proving again that they are less interested in free markets than in profit-making—and whether their members make money through government subsidy or market competition is of secondary importance to them. (Recall the chamber’s energetic support of the Obama stimulus.) On the other side were a few right-wing pea shooters like Heritage Action and the Club for Growth. Guess which side of the debate the press portrayed as the power-crazed bad guys.
As most of the news stories noted, the Ex-Im Bank is a totem of that fabled bipartisanship that certain kinds of partisans cherish. That’s one of the attractions of crony capitalism: It’s wonderfully bipartisan, so long as “we can spread the wealth around,” to coin a phrase, so that the most powerful interests stay happy enough to write campaign checks. It was especially disconcerting to see House majority leader Eric Cantor unite with his Democratic opposite number, Steny Hoyer, to forge a “compromise” that will keep the bank going another three years—and expand the portfolio of guaranteed loans from $100 billion to $140 billion. Like every advocate of the Ex-Im Bank over the last half century, Cantor invoked the specter of Eurosocialism to defend the bank. Letting its charter lapse, Cantor said, would signal “unilateral disarmament” in our trade competition with foreign companies that are themselves heavily subsidized by their governments. The argument might have had greater force before Europe waddled to the edge of bankruptcy, thanks in part to precisely the kind of subsidies that the Ex-Im is supposed to match. Republicans keep telling us the United States is different from Europe.
The real argument against the bank isn’t fiscal. It’s true that we shouldn’t be putting more taxpayer money at risk when every part of government needs to be cut back. More important, unwinding the bank would have been an act of philosophical hygiene—cutting government not because “we can’t afford it” but because it works against the economic freedom that brings prosperity. Meddling of the sort the bank represents distorts the market over the long term, and thus reduces the space for competition and the wealth such competition creates. Regardless of any near-term benefits, which are likely oversold, the eventual consequence of the bank’s intervention is to turn businesses into rent-seekers instead of enterprises dedicated to innovation. They end up trying to please the government instead of the customer.
The bipartisan deal between Cantor and Hoyer reminds us that few concepts in Washington are more overrated than “bipartisanship.” Large ideological advances are often made when Congress votes on party lines—Democrats will think here of Obamacare, Republicans of the Bush tax cuts—but the muddy trail of mischief left by bipartisanship is a long one: the prescription drug benefit, Fannie Mae, campaign finance reform, the No Child Left Behind education reform, and an almost limitless number of pernicious expenses that Republicans and Democrats together renew automatically (federal subsidies for nearly everything).
“I say the problem is not that we don’t get along,” Coburn said last week. “We get along too well. Government is twice the size it was 10 years ago. The president can’t spend the money if we don’t appropriate it. So it’s not a presidential problem. It’s a congressional problem.”
Coburn’s right. And when we look to the promise of 2013, that’s what has us worried.