Restraining federal spending

Posted: Nov 13, 2003 12:00 AM

The classic poem speaks of children nestled in beds on Christmas Eve, but this year sugar plums began dancing in GOP heads following last week's Kentucky and Mississippi gubernatorial victories. "Don't blow it," the whispering began. "If only we're careful, we can win big in 2004."

This is all a far cry from 1994, when Republicans took chances and indeed won big. The GOP won by pushing hard for less government -- but now, almost a decade after the Gingrich-Armey Contract With America helped Republicans grab control of Congress from the Dems after spending 40 years in the political wilderness, little seems to have changed in Washington.

Look, for example, at the spending stats published this week. During the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, military spending jumped by nearly 17 percent, which makes sense during wartime. But non-military discretionary spending rose 8.7 percent, giving legislators the opportunity to brag to constituents about new porkbarrel projects. President Bush had talked of holding the line at 4 percent.

I spoke last week with Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma obstetrician elected to the House in 1994 who kept his promise to leave after three terms. "Compare campaign promises with what people actually do," he said. Many roll into Washington speaking of change and end up logrolling for loose dollars.

Coburn's new book, "Breach of Trust," refers to C.S. Lewis's critique of "the quest for the Inner Ring," and writes, "The sensation of stepping inside the Inner Ring of Congress is exhilarating," (but) soon the thrill of being in the Inner Ring of 435 in the House or 100 in the Senate loses its potency, and the goal becomes to make it into the Inner Ring of subcommittee chairmen, then committee chairmen, then leadership."

Coburn notes Lewis' view "that of all passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things. ‘As long as you are governed by that desire, you will never get what you want. ... Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.' Unfortunately, our leadership and a majority of career Republicans never overcame that fear of being an outsider. ... As a result, we governed from a position of fear rather than courage and failed to bring about revolutionary changes."

What to do? We need improvements in many areas, but here are six things citizens can do to help to contain government spending. First, renew the drive for term limits and other institutional means that can lessen the pull of the Inner Ring. Second, character counts: Don't just vote on the basis of campaign promises, learn whether the candidate has the internal moral compass to fight the passion for the Inner Ring. Third, since many politicians don't have that compass, support Paul Weyrich's idea of setting up a budget-cutting commission similar to the military base-closing commission that did a good job, and push for an up-or-down vote on the commission proposal.

Fourth, don't become overly impatient: Remember in a fallen world that only by the sweat of our brow do we accomplish even small things politically. Fifth, push President Bush to veto some spending programs to show that the administration is serious about restraining federal discretionary spending. Rudolph Penner, a Republican and former budget office director, said, "One wonders how serious the White House is about holding the line." Three years into the administration, it's time to stop wondering.

Finally, as Coburn writes, "The devolution of federal power I am advocating must be accompanied by a much more determined effort on the part of the church, in particular, to care for the needs of the poor and the elderly. ... The best way to drive out the culture of dependence and entitlement in America is through the relentless love and compassion of caring neighbors."