Clear mandate for ownership

Posted: Jan 14, 2005 12:00 AM

The voters spoke loud and clear last year, handing George Bush a mandate to replace big government with a true ownership society. Now, to help achieve that goal, we have handed him the Heritage Foundation "Mandate for Leadership."

    Heritage has published several editions of "Mandate" since 1980. This year's is by far the shortest, for a good reason: In the past, we needed to explain to policymakers why conservative principles should form the policy building blocks.

    But in the 2004 election, the American people overwhelmingly endorsed conservative ideas. On the campaign trail, President Bush promised to reform Social Security reform, expand free trade, fix the tax code and reduce federal spending and regulation. Mr. Bush earned more than 60.6 million votes for that platform -- the most any candidate has ever won.

    So the 2005 "Mandate" serves primarily as a detailed checklist of measures conservative politicians need to take to build an "Ownership Society." It can also serve as a guidebook for voters, so they can make sure their representatives are living up to their conservative promises. Some haven't been lately.

    In the late '90s, large government surpluses fueled an irresponsible jump in federal spending. Adjusted for inflation, spending has increased 25 percent since 1996. Unfortunately that boom shows no sign of abating. Today the government spends more than $20,000 per household.

    But now, elected to a second term and with a growing conservative majority in both houses of Congress, Mr. Bush has vowed to begin changing this. It will be a major undertaking.

    For example, we already know the government's recent spending spree must be paid for eventually. Right now, we're borrowing the money. But some day, we'll have to raise taxes to pay for it -- unless we start to trim spending now.

    Mr. Bush promised to cut the federal budget deficit in half in five years, and he has already taken a sensible step toward that end: He has drafted a budget that would hold the 2006 spending increase below 1 percent. Even that modest goal is likely to be demonized as a series of "radical cuts" by lawmakers on the left and their mainstream media allies.

    The "Mandate" explains that lawmakers should go further and revamp the entire federal budget process, as a way to cap spending and encourage fiscal restraint. It also calls for a Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, to restrict future spending increases to the inflation rate plus the rate of population growth.

    Of course, the major element of building a long-term ownership society is Social Security reform. Mr. Bush has pushed for this since he was governor of Texas. "Mandate" explains how to make it a reality.

    We should allow taxpayers to invest a portion of their Social Security tax payments in accounts they would own and control. This approach would let everyone, even those of modest means, build a nest egg for a comfortable retirement.

    Plus, the system would be fairer to those who die between 50 and 70. As it stands, many face the prospect of having contributed to Social Security throughout their working lives and getting few or no benefits when they die. If these people had personal retirement accounts, they would at least know they had real wealth to pass on to future generations.

    "Mandate" also explains how policymakers can improve welfare programs, revise 2003's patently unaffordable Medicare entitlement and expand affordable health-care coverage -- all critical reforms on the road to reform.

    At the same time, this year's edition provides plenty of foreign policy advice. It explains what the federal government must do to effectively protect the homeland, update the military for the 21st century and improve America's image abroad.

    Back in 1996 President Bill Clinton announced, "The era of big government is over." Not quite. But, with conservative leadership, it will be soon.

    Let's get to work.