WASHINGTON -- Rep. Mike Pence, a 46-year-old former radio talk show host from eastern Indiana serving his third term in Congress, is currently chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC). He has tried hard to cooperate with the regular House Republican leadership rather than confront it. So, he could not have been happy last Tuesday when he found himself in a closed-door autodafe, with GOP leaders as the inquisitors and Pence as the heretic.
Pence and the RSC's heresy was to propose that massive federal outlays resulting from Hurricane Katrina be offset by reduced spending elsewhere. Specifically, they requested offsets to cut highway projects earmarked by individual House members, and a delay in implementing President Bush's new Medicare prescription drug subsidy. The negative reaction by the leadership was reflected when Pence, offered a seat at a later meeting, explained that he would be more comfortable standing because House Speaker Dennis Hastert had just tanned his hide.
Neither President Bush nor congressional leaders will tolerate tampering with the drug subsidy, the president's least popular initiative among conservatives. While the White House would be happy to see some highway pork eliminated, the House leaders absolutely refused. At stake here is a basic disagreement over the philosophy of government within the Republican Party as it nears the end of its 11th year controlling the House of Representatives.
Hastert believes it is not just the privilege but the duty of a House member to deliver federal projects to his constituents. Many younger conservatives could not disagree more, but most -- like Pence -- are loyal Republicans who are loath to criticize their leaders. An exception on the RSC to such reticence is 42-year-old Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who like Pence ran a conservative think tank before entering Congress.
Self-limited to three terms ending next year, Flake has acted as though there is no tomorrow from his first day in the House in January 2001. He, along with Pence, was one of only 25 Republicans to vote against the drug subsidy in 2003. Flake believes big government is addictive. "The leadership hooks the new members when they come into Congress," Flake told me, "and they stay hooked."
Pence was far more discreet in Tuesday's session with his party's leadership, but that did not save him a going over, led by two powerful committee chairmen: Rep. Don Young (Transportation Committee) and Rep. Bill Thomas (Ways and Means Committee). The harshest treatment of Pence, however, was administered by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who does not like his rank-and-file members depicting a free-spending Republican Party.
There was more of the same from the leadership at Wednesday's closed-door House Republican Conference. Pence was not asked to speak on behalf of the RSC, and he did not volunteer.
But later Wednesday, RSC members in a press conference unveiled Operation Offset, an attempt to cut earmarks and reduce the drug subsidy bill. Pence offered to delay his $26 million highway earmark for Muncie and Anderson in eastern Indiana. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a 48-year-old second-termer from Texas, similarly would be willing to delay $16 million for roads in Mesquite. Flake is a rare congressman who asked for no earmarked highway funds for his district (though it did not keep him from re-election last year with 79 percent of the vote). Young is the grand champion earmarker, with more than $1 billion in the highway bill for projects in his state of Alaska.
Pence, Flake and Hensarling met privately with Office of Management and Budget Director Josh Bolten last Thursday and got a warmer reception than they did from their own leadership -- up to a point. The president will not permit a hair to be touched on the head of the expensive new entitlement for prescription drugs.
The beleaguered conservatives see all this spending leading inexorably to a tax increase, which would redistribute the tax burden to the disadvantage of the successful and threaten an economic recession. Barry Goldwater long ago assailed Dwight D. Eisenhower for presiding over a "Dime Store New Deal." That stinging rebuke no longer would be appropriate for today's Republicans. They outdo Democrats on pork and are in the same ballpark on entitlements. Even Katrina and now Rita do not restrain them.