Joe Scarborough is one feisty guy

Rebecca Hagelin
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Posted: Sep 22, 2004 12:00 AM

For loyal fans (and loyal enemies) of his energetic MSNBC show, "Scarborough Country," my characterizing Joe as "feisty" comes as no real surprise. But trust me, fellow viewers: If you haven't heard Joe talk about runaway federal spending in person, then you have no idea just how feisty and gutsy he can be.

Recently, I had the pleasure of hosting Joe for a Heritage Foundation lecture on his new book, "Rome Wasn't Burnt in a Day." I expected Joe to be bold when discussing the wild spending by congressional Republicans during the last 10 years ? but I didn't expect him to rock the House. But rock the House (the Republican-controlled House) he did. This former Republican congressman took his own party to task in a manner that proves he cares more for America than he does for "politics as usual."

But then again, Joe proved that long ago.

In "Rome Wasn't Burnt in a Day," Joe recounts a great story about one of his first town-hall meetings as a member of the House of Representatives.

He had returned to his North Florida district to hear from his constituents, and most greeted him as a conquering hero.

"Congressman Joe," as he was known, had come to Washington with the class of 1994. He'd never held elective office, and the closest he'd come to involvement in politics was trying to unseat "The Machine," the fraternity-and-sorority-controlled cabal that ran the student government at the University of Alabama.

Joe was part of the young upstarts on Capitol Hill who were going to abolish the departments of Education, Energy and Commerce. They were going to pay as they went, balance the budget, end government waste and curb the influence of lobbyists on public policy. On their first day in the House, the Class of '94 and the dynamic new speaker, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, voted to require that Congress live by the laws it passed for others. They passed legislation that cut the number of committees, their staffs and their budgets by a third, and the speaker slapped term limits on committee chairmen.

They had President Clinton ? and, truthfully, all of Washington ? on the run. Within five months, President Clinton would stun his own party by declaring in his State of the Union address that the "era of big government is over" and hold a press conference in which he really and truly said, "I would remind you, the Constitution gives me relevance. The president is relevant here."

At Joe's town-hall meeting, one constituent happened to get control of the microphone and declared, "There ain't a dime's worth of difference between Republicans and Democrats," the man said. "Your boy Newt's no different than Bill Clinton."

Scarborough went off. "It's great that you cared enough to come to our town-hall meeting," he said. "But why don't you read a newspaper before you come to the next one?"

He followed with a barrage: Republicans pass balanced-budget amendments, cut taxes and make Congress live by the rules it passes for others, he said. Democrats fight to keep the inefficient, expensive status quo, to regulate everything in sight, to enact the largest tax hike in American history.

Ten years later, Scarborough says, "I think I owe my grumpy former constituent an apology." Republicans and Democrats alike, he now writes, seem interested in two things: "wasting your money and consolidating their power."

It is with Republicans in charge on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, he acknowledges ruefully, that America has gone from a $155 billion surplus to a $455 billion ? and counting ? deficit in three years. It is with Republicans in charge on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, he charges (citing data from the Heritage Foundation) that Americans now pay more per year for their government than they have at any time since World War II.

Since the GOP took over Congress in 1995, Joe points out, the departments of Justice and Education have more than doubled spending, and Commerce (82 percent), Health and Human Services (81 percent), State (80 percent), Transportation (65 percent) and Housing and Urban Development (59 percent) all have enjoyed substantial increases.

A lot of Republicans won't like Scarborough's book ? it's a trip to the woodshed for the party he hoped would change America when he ran for Congress. And since nothing less than a presidential election is just a few weeks away, a few folks probably will be angry with me, too ? simply for telling the truth. Please note: Joe is clear, and so am I, that Congress wants even more spending, even higher taxes and even bigger government.

But true conservatives must acknowledge that, on some key questions, far too many of those "in charge" have lost their way.

It's time for grassroots conservatives to take a tip from "Feisty Joe" and start demanding more from our leaders.