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Message for McCain: The Only Way to Fight Corruption is to Cut Government

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The addition of Governor Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket gives John McCain the chance to reclaim his identity as a maverick and reformer, and to shape a winning message for the fall campaign.

The American people clearly want to see government cleaned up – with curbs on corrupt lobbyists, special interests, wasteful spending, and lavish favors for the rich and powerful. The Democrats are already trying to address this concern and naturally want to tar the GOP as the party of corruption and corporate power.

The Republicans need to respond with clarity and force to emphasize a single proposition: the only way to clean government up is to cut government down. No president can fight corruption without trimming spending and terminating bloated bureaucracies.

The Democrats propose vastly expanded federal programs in health care, education, the environment, energy and dozens of other areas. These programs, as even Barack Obama admits, will cost literally trillions of dollars. When the feds handle more money – more of the people’s money – it’s an obvious invitation for more corruption, more special favors, more targeted winners and losers depending on political influence.

If a swamp is breeding all sorts of insects and infections, you don’t improve the situation by diverting more water into the already fetid pool; the first thing you need to do is drain the swamp.

The Democrats seem to suggest that spending more will mean less waste --- a notion that every American with common sense can readily reject.

The challenge of battling special interests and corruption isn’t a separate issue from cutting federal spending and shrinking the government: they’re the same issue.

In his new book, “The Wrecking Crew” leftist commentator Thomas Frank makes the point that you’ll now find the wealthiest counties in the United States clustered in the D.C. area. That’s surprising, because Washington doesn’t really make anything – not a center of oil production like Houston, or software and aircraft like Seattle, or even movies and entertainment like Los Angeles. Frank rightly points out that the huge explosion of wealth in the nation’s capital relates to the tremendous increase in lobbying activity, with highly paid lawyers and influence peddlers trying to grab every available advantage from the federal behemoth.

But the right way to stop this corporate influence isn’t (as Frank suggests) simply to replace crooked Republicans with righteous, dedicated Democrats: it’s to tame the federal monster that drew the lobbyists in the first place, as government grew under Democrats and Republicans alike. As long as corporations find their success or failure subject to the whim of federal policy, of course they’ll make every effort to influence those policies – and no amount of lobbying regulation can end those efforts.

Consider the U.S. Department of Agriculture – with 106,000 employees and a yearly budget of $94 billion (2006 figures). This monstrous bureaucracy grows only one crop: regulation and favors, for one agri-business interest or another. Can anyone blame farming companies or organizations from attempting to secure favorable treatment from such an idiotically over-grown endeavor?

Then there’s the U.S. Department of Education (established by the worthless Jimmy Carter in 1979), with 5,000 employees and a budget of $69 billion --- an operation that doesn’t actually operate a single school (states and localities do that) but exists to send money to favored programs and regions. Is it any surprise that the education lobby (particularly the formidable teachers unions) has become one of the most fearsome forces in Washington?

The Department of Energy (another Carter era innovation) lists 16,100 federal employees and another 100,000 contract employees, with a budget of 23.4 billion – but never pumped a single barrel of oil.

In the thirty years that the Departments of Education and Energy have existed at the cabinet level, does anyone believe that the situation with either education or energy improved in the United States?

McCain shouldn’t call for the elimination of whole federal departments because the Democrats can too easily demagogue and say it shows he’s opposed to “education” and “energy.” But he can call attention to their lavishly wasteful existence, and the flood of money they’ve squandered over the years.

This is the essence of reform—taking on established bureaucracies, shaking things up in Washington, and cleaning out the most corrupt and ineffective programs by closing them down.

Emphasizing this approach also touches two other issues the Republicans should own: tax simplification and social security.

The tax code gets more complicated every year because special interests manage to wheedle no end of special breaks, complicated credits and exemptions. Barack Obama favors a whole array of new complications in the tax code—including at least a dozen new “refundable tax credits” that would go even to those who paid nothing in taxes (in which case they become welfare checks). Those Rube Goldberg contraptions establish and invite special treatment and big giveaways for those who know how to game the system. The only way to create a less corrupt tax system is to create a cleaner tax system— with more simplicity, more comprehensibility, fewer loopholes and lower rates.

The second issue (barely touched by Democrats in Denver) that highlights the need for reform is the survival of Social Security and Medicare. Saving these entitlements involves more than cleaning up the programs themselves: it requires huge cuts in government spending elsewhere, to pay back the massive amounts “borrowed” from the Social Security system over the years.

McCain and Palin need to make clear that the purpose of cutting spending isn’t just to avoid tax hikes. Most people who worry about (or pay) high taxes are already leaning Republican. Cutting back the undergrowth of useless federal programs is also the only way to drive out the lobbyists and special interests who occupy Washington like ravaging locusts. The public already understands that Democrats, as well as Republicans, make hay with this insider double-dealing: that’s why the approval rating for the Democratic Congress is even lower than it is for the President (and even lower than it was when the Republicans ran the House and Senate).

Both Democrats and Republicans claim they want to reform Washington and reduce levels of corruption. The GOP should challenge their opponents to go along with the only reliable way to strike back at favoritism and special interests and sweetheart deals for the powerful: cutting back on the size of the government and its share of the private sector economy.

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