March 17, 2011
Much, Much More than Budget CuttingBy J. Robert Smith
There's a lurking danger in Republican efforts to cut budgets and kill programs. First, Washington Republicans may not go far enough fast enough. But the greater danger is this: Republicans may be so intent to deal with the particulars of government that they fail to engage the global problem of government. Certainly, particulars matter a lot. But the overriding need in these times is a vision and general strategy that countervails the left's efforts to wrench the nation from its foundational moorings.
Absent a countervailing vision and strategy for a return to limited government, the left may lose some battles but win the war - a war that its leader, Barack Obama, declared in the opening days of his presidency.
The next four years will be critical in thwarting the left's designs. But don't be deceived. Stopping ObamaCare and other Democrat initiatives aren't enough. Longer term, the right needs to fight for a rebirth of freedom. To help get there, conservative leaders and opinion-shapers need to offer Americans a compelling alternative worldview.
The left's Washington push isn't a disjointed affair. No need to recap the Obama-Pelosi-Reid legislative drive of 2009-10. No need to plunge into all the executive orders being issued by President Obama to swell and centralize Washington's role. Give Mr. Obama and his congressional cohorts their due. They, along with their allies, know what they want, and are striving to obtain their ends with focus and discipline. Mr. Obama may be an incompetent executive and he may stumble at times, but the President has his goal, and he's seeking to achieve it with single-minded determination.
The cold, hard reality is that Mr. Obama and the left are waging revolution. And the left's revolution isn't merely a corrective to the so-called Reagan Revolution. It surpasses that. The left wishes to radically remake the nation, to transform it into a statist bastion. But should Mr. Obama fall short, the left won't quit; it's intrinsically about revolution. The left is playing a zero-sum game, and it's deadly serious about winning.
There's no difference-splitting or compromise with the left, as some Republicans might hope. Mr. Obama and the left need to be defeated and, longer term, marginalized. The left's revolution must be met with a conservative counter. Conservatives must join the fight with a cohesive set of ideas and actions that galvanizes public support and aggressively advances systemic reform aimed at returning the nation to its founding principles. Advocacy for the status quo ante (the nation before Obama) will fail if that's all the Republicans have to offer.
America prior to the Obama presidency contained the bad seeds and strangling vines that Mr. Obama and the left are cultivating now, much to the nation's detriment. Leviathan government wasn't dropped from the sky; it has been growing on American soil for decades. Those strangling vines need to be uprooted and burned. That's the heart of the struggle for conservatives: to excise those elements in government that permit Mr. Obama and the left to further statism. What needs planting are reforms and safeguards that effectively bar the left from exploiting our system of government in the future.
What reforms are we talking about? Chiefly, amendments to the Constitution, some that provide more specificity to key clauses. The Commerce Clause is a prime example. Since the New Deal, Democrat presidents, Congresses, and liberal courts, principally, have distorted the Commerce Clause to justify all sorts of expansions of federal power and usurpations of the states. The Commerce Clause needs to cease to be a superhighway for the aggrandizement of government.
Another amendment, touted by Milton Friedman years ago, would limit federal spending to a percentage of the nation's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Some conservatives argue that the Constitution doesn't need amending. What are needed, say these conservatives, are governing majorities and politicians with the will to return the Constitution to its original intent; the nation needs judges appointed who are strict constructionists. Also, practically, the process of amendment is onerous and uncertain.
These points have validity. A law -- constitutional or otherwise -- is only as good as those who enforce it and those who willingly abide by it. But a clarifying amendment to the Commerce Clause, for instance, means diminishing the debate over how much license Washington and the courts are granted in regulating interstate commerce (or making putty of the clause to grow government). And any amendment that limits federal spending further strips Washington's power.
High law -- constitutional law -- less general in key clauses becomes a potent weapon in fighting the left's advances, whether in Congress, the courts, or in the arena of public opinion. Ambiguity is no friend of freedom. Placing greater restrictions on federal powers are in step with the founders' reasoning, and though no one can speak for Jefferson or Madison, it's not unfair to suggest that those men would today favor amendments that rein in Washington's excesses.
Of course, there are reforms that don't require constitutional amendments. Reforming the tax code is an example. Make tax rates flat and simplify the tax code. A flat tax deprives presidents and congresses the ability to micromanage society, choosing winners and losers, rewarding friends and punishing enemies.
Ending the tyranny of the full-time professional politician, particularly in Congress, is another reform. Term limits are one avenue, but other changes, more mundane, can be achieved short of an amendment. Congress has the power to limit itself.
Congress must cease to be a year-round legislature. It really didn't become so until the early 1970s. Sessions need to be short and meager. Part-time congressmen should be paid part-time wages with reduced benefits. Congressional and committee staffs need to be slashed.
Members of Congress need to spend more time in their states and districts, closer to the citizens they serve. With today's secure communications technologies, Congressmen can participate in votes and hearings from their states and districts. Pulling Members of Congress from Washington's culture can't help but have beneficial effects.
Also, the membership of the U.S. House needs to be enlarged, but only after the previously mentioned reforms are enacted. Having one representative per 700,000 citizens is an absurdly high ratio, which, undoubtedly, would have appalled the framers. No more exclusive club for the U.S. House; it needs to return to the people's chamber.
Worried that a part-time Congress couldn't effectively counterbalance the presidency or the federal bureaucracy? Executive and bureaucratic reforms are badly needed, too.
Those are just some particulars of a conservative reform campaign to reclaim the American ideal of limited government and greater liberty. Yet it's Lincoln's declaration that the nation could not survive half free and half slave that echoes today. In Lincoln's declaration, conservatives find a critical theme and present the nation with a clear choice.
Barack Obama and his cohorts have chosen to raise the stakes by ratcheting-up the conflict between the right and left. It's Mr. Obama and the left who stand indicted of intensifying the fight for the nation's heart and soul. It remains for conservatives to join the battle with a compelling alternative vision for America, one not alien but familiar; one that the founders would wholeheartedly approve.