House Republicans Reclaim Their Brand on Spending

Posted: Jun 24, 2007 12:00 AM
House Republicans Reclaim Their Brand on Spending

Senate Republicans are squabbling amongst themselves over immigration reform. President Bush is fighting a losing battle with his base. But in the House of Representatives, times couldn’t be better for the GOP.

House Republicans have coalesced around the issue of federal spending, handing Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) a stinging defeat on earmark reform and sending their liberal colleagues a unified message not to exceed the president’s budget requests.

For conservatives who stayed home last Election Day, it’s refreshing to see someone in Washington paying attention again.

Conservatives have Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, to thank for much of what’s happening. Hensarling’s unabashed devotion to fiscal restraint has helped GOP leaders John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) unify Republicans.

Of course, their job was made even easier by Democratic miscues, most notably House Appropriations Chairman David Obey’s attempt to ram through a secret earmark slush fund with no transparency or accountability. The Wisconsin Democrat’s underhanded maneuver gave conservatives a perfect opening, and they took advantage.

One by one, conservatives strode onto the House floor to contrast Pelosi’s promise “to make this the most honest, ethical and open Congress in history” with Obey’s shenanigans. Business in the House came to a standstill, leaving the speaker and her cohorts no option but to cut a deal and hand the GOP a win.

Only days later, conservatives scored their second triumph when Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) managed to round up 147 members to sign a letter vowing to uphold the president’s veto of spending bills that exceed his budget requests. That’s one member more than the 146 needed to sustain a veto.

And it looks like the signatories will have plenty of opportunities to follow through on their promise. Congressional appropriators have been busy stuffing this year’s spending bills with extra fat. The homeland security appropriations bill, for example, came in at 14% more than Bush’s request. He’ll veto it and, if the letter signers hold true to their word, House Republicans will deliver enough votes to make the veto stick.

What’s most significant about these developments is the way they came about. In both cases, conservative ideas quickly snowballed into party-unifying messages. Boehner and Blunt, both of whom faced challenges from the right for their current leadership posts, have embraced their onetime foes.

During a June 14 celebratory conference call, conservative bloggers asked Blunt and Hensarling about friction between GOP leadership and rank-and-file conservatives in the House. Both members dismissed such talk and lauded their ability to get along.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the man charged with helping the GOP regain control of the House in next year’s elections, told me that in the wake of the earmark fight, Republicans “got their groove back.” Life in the minority has been a wake-up call for many Republican members, he said, and they don’t like it. As a result, they are banding together to change the situation.

It won’t come easy, but conservative Republicans are getting some outside help. The ultra-liberal policies being proposed by Democratic leaders, coupled with their inability to get much done, threaten to undo the party that swept into Washington with so much hope and exuberance less than six months ago. With congressional approval ratings at historic lows -- Gallup finds only 14% of Americans have a “great deal” of confidence in Congress -- now is the time for conservatives to reclaim the issue of fiscal restraint that cost them control.

Following last November’s electoral losses, the conservative Club for Growth bluntly stated that the “Republican Party has completely lost its brand as the party of limited government and low spending.” The group cited a post-election poll that revealed nearly 40% of Americans thought Republicans were “the party of big government” compared to 28% who had that opinion of Democrats.

Despite the GOP’s recent successes, it’s premature for Republicans to take any victory laps. Yes, they were able to embarrass Democrats on procedural grounds in the earmark fight. And, yes, the veto letter gives them a credible weapon to wield in battles over spending bills. But the hard work is just beginning.

For example, a $23 billion slush fund created to finance those earmarks still exists. “House Republicans struck a blow for openness and transparency,” said my Heritage Foundation colleague Brian Riedl. “The next test will be whether Congress takes advantage of this openness to terminate the thousands of pork projects that are expected to appear in spending bills.”

It’s a test that Republicans failed for much of this decade. But with a quest to win at the polls and a frustration with being stuck in the minority, it’s the GOP’s best bet to get its winning brand back.