Think tanks…well you can guess what they do. So in his new book, Getting America Right: The True Conservative Values Our Nation Needs Today, (which he co-authored with Doug Wilson), Heritage Foundation president Ed Feulner takes the work of his brain trust and tries whipping the right into shape–the policymakers, the voters, the true believers, the curious…whoever is thinking about where we’re going. Former Heritage intern, NRO editor Kathryn Lopez, recently talked to him about how we can Get Right.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: I remember piles of “Backgrounders” on shutting down the Departments of education, labor, etc. all over Heritage back when I was an intern there. Does their continued existence depress you? Do you consider any of that unfinished business or is it a lost cause?
Ed Feulner: Of course it’s depressing. It is depressing because parents who want to provide better opportunities for their children get lost in a huge one-size fits all government bureaucracy. It furthers the mistaken belief that the solutions to our problems will come from government in Washington. Our country faces some serious problems and we need to remember that the innovative solutions to these problems will come from the American people, and that they evolve through our federal system at the local and state levels, not from some paper-pushing federal bureaucrat lost in a government labyrinth from which Theseus couldn’t escape.
Is it a lost cause? Let’s just say there are a lot of horses that have already escaped the barn. Yet, at the end of the day, the American people want a system that works. So I believe that slowly we will start to see control of education moving from bureaucrats in a centralized government building back to the people who care most about our children–their parents. And as we move in that direction, hope springs eternal that we’ll be able to bulldoze the department of Education. The location would be a perfect spot for some softball fields where the Heritage team could again be league champions.
Lopez: How much of your book is just pure common sense? Like, “it’s irresponsible to fund unnecessary programs.”
Feulner: A lot of it is common sense. However, you may have noticed that common sense is not always the currency in Washington. Our book is a how-to manual for the American people to grab the reigns of government and steer our lawmakers back in the direction of common sense. Some of it is quite simple: The government should be forced to abide by generally accepted accounting principles so that the American people know exactly what government costs, now and in the future. American business has to do this when it reports to stockholders. Under these principles, Americans would have been told that the unfunded cost of the 2003 Medicare Prescription Drug entitlement would dwarf the shortfall of Social Security and effectively double the national debt. And it would have been made clear to them that if we don’t reform those two programs, along with the other entitlement programs, our children, and grandchildren are going to have to pay for them by raising taxes to French and German levels.
So, yes, the book is about common sense. Here’s a common sense question: Would you allow somebody to give your grandchild a $189,000 mortgage the moment he is born? Of course not. Well, I’ve had three grandchildren born in the last three years. And each of them has that mortgage. It’s their share of the unfunded obligations of the welfare state they are inheriting from us. Frankly, it’s morally reprehensible.
Lopez: On page 120 you rally for a line-item veto. Were you doing cartwheels when the president recently did the same?
Feulner: I was, and Ed Feulner doing a cartwheel is quite a sight! The line-item veto is a tool that 43 of our nation’s governors use to great benefit to their constituents, and I am hopeful it can be a similarly worthwhile tool in the federal government. Our system of government is one that was set up to encourage conflict between the executive and legislative branches. Our founders believed that was the best way to control the excesses of each. For the last five years, both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have shied away from conflict because they believe Republicans in both branches are “on the same team.” The problem with that view is you lose some of the checks and balances that make our system strong. So I like the line-item veto as a tactical weapon the Executive Branch can use to push back on Congress. One tactical weapon I’d like to see Congress use more effectively is oversight. It is outrageous how many failed programs we continue to fund in this country. Congress should be holding hearings and ending them.
Lopez: Can W be forgiven for not vetoing anything?
Feulner: I’m a Catholic; I believe in forgiveness. So, yes.
The president–along with the vice president–is the only national leader elected by the entire country to represent the interests of the entire country. Members of Congress are elected to represent their own districts. So it’s part of the process that they will try to use the federal largesse to benefit their constituents. The president needs to step in and say “Hey, guys, this is out of control. It’s hurting our country. And it’s going to stop.” That’s the message of a veto.
Lopez: Has the bridge to nowhere been a tad overhyped?
Feulner: The bridge to nowhere is important as a symbol, in addition to being a colossal waste of taxpayer funds. Too often, Washington policy discussions get stuck in the pointy-headed accounting of billions and trillions of dollars. Well here is a story people can grab on to and ask pointed questions to their congressman. “Mr. Congressman, do you believe that each of us across the nation should be paying for a bridge in Alaska that serves 50 people?” The example was made even more poignant when Senator Tom Coburn asked his colleagues to give up this wasteful pork project to reallocate the funds to the legitimate federal function of helping to rebuild a bridge destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Of course, this sensible Coburn amendment was voted down!
Lopez: What’s wrong with $25,000 to Las Vegas schools to study Mariachi music? Where’s your appreciation for cultural diversity?
Feulner: I don’t think the federal government should be in the business of picking winners and losers. Is Mariachi music worth encouraging in society? I won’t pretend to have strong feelings either way. Last year, The Heritage Foundation gave our annual Salvatori Prize for American Citizenship to the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. This is a private group that saw George Washington’s estate in a state of disrepair, recognized that it was a national treasure, and raise money to preserve this historic treasure of our country. They don’t ask for earmarks from Congress and I applaud that as representing the best of America’s “little platoons” solving real problems. So, obviously, I don’t think Las Vegas schools should be getting earmarks to study Mariachi music either.
Lopez: Seriously though, can pork-busting happen?
Feulner: Absolutely. The laws of economics work for congressmen as well as they do in any other circumstance. When bloggers, talk-radio, and citizens around the country get upset by these projects, the cost of pork goes up. Congressmen know that if they put the next goofy bridge to nowhere into an appropriations bill, the pork-busting campaign will turn them into a laughing stock. Gradually, as the American people fight for what they believe in, their elected members of Congress will respond and deliver it to them. It can be frustrating that sometimes it doesn’t happen as quickly as we might like, but I’ve always said that it takes a long time to make fundamental change in Washington.
Lopez: Is Mike Pence conservatives’ best advocate in Congress? Who else is there?
Feulner: Mike Pence is definitely one of the best. If I’ve learned anything from watching the Oscars (a doubtful premise), it’s that you don’t try to list all of the people you are grateful for because you end up leaving somebody off. At Heritage, we believe in the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense. The best advocates in Congress are those members who stick to those values even when it requires a difficult vote and ostracism–or even retribution–from their own leadership.
Lopez: It is early and you can’t endorse anyway whatever the date, but are any of the potential presidential candidates talking like they’d Get America Right?
Feulner: Getting America Right isn’t about electoral politics–the up-down horserace of presidential elections. Instead, it’s a handbook for policy politics. That is, what happens when the elected officials get to Washington and actually have to make decisions on pending issues. Policy politics is the whole process that citizens use to learn how they can hold their elected representatives’ feet to the fire when they’re in Washington making important decisions about the future of our country.
Lopez: I ‘m not sure your book would make it through the ‘08 primaries. Can you really write a book on conservative values and not focus some significant time on abortion, cloning, and the sancituty of life?
Feulner: We do talk about these issues. We talk about how insane–and, frankly, un-American–it is that on these important moral issues, nine unelected judges are forcing their moral judgments on the American people. Our system is one which allows these moral issues to be handled in a way that respects the will of the people. Getting America Right urges our country to get back to that successful formula even if that makes the New York Times unhappy.
Lopez: You seem to take a first pro-law line on immigration (racist! Yahoo!). Are your donors in sync with you there?
Feulner: The Hill, one of the big newspapers covering Capitol Hill, gave Heritage a lot of praise for being one of the few think tanks that has really made an effort to engage the immigration issue. I’m glad we have and our donors are supportive as well. We believe, first and foremost, in the rule of law–if there’s a law on the books, it needs to be enforced. And we believe our nation’s border needs to be secured. Period. Paragraph.
Once you’ve done that, we think that illegal aliens should return home to their countries of origin where they should be eligible to wait in line with everybody else for a serious and fair guest-worker program that allows people the opportunity to come to America and build a better life for themselves. And, finally, we believe that part of coming to America is engaging in our culture–learning the language, the values, and the history of the great nation and great idea that is America. And therefore, like Teddy Roosevelt 100 years ago, we reject the notion of “hyphenated-Americans” who owe split allegiance to two nations.
Lopez: If Republican party would listen to only one point you make in your book, what would you hope it would be?
Feulner: The point I would like all Americans to take away from this book is that democracy only means we get the government that we deserve. In a democracy, you need to be actively engaged in the process throughout the year, not just once every 2 or 4 years when it comes time to vote. Americans need to retake our schools by being involved in our children’s education and going to PTA meetings; we need to retake Congress by demanding more from our congressmen and getting outraged when they throw our country under a bus in order to satisfy a vocal interest. Americans have always been a can-do people. Getting America Right is a book that shows ways you can get involved to get our country back on the track of greatness our Founders set it off on.
Lopez: Is there any way the Republican party retains Congress this year?
Feulner: I think they can–I think they probably will retain both houses of Congress, but lose seats in each. More to the point, there’s still plenty of time for Republicans to grasp ahold of the ideas which served their party so well in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan. Most Americans don’t go to the polls because they’re excited for their guys to be in power just for the sake of being in power. If they perceive that’s what their party is interested in, they’ll stay home. I believe that a winning strategy in 2006 and 2008 will be one that returns to those first principles shared by so many Americans: Get government off of our backs so that we, as Americans always have, can spread our wings and soar to greatness.
Lopez: What’s the most Right thing this president has done?
Feulner: I’d look at a number of things. First, and most importantly, his steadfast resolve in the Long War. We are in a war against an irreconcilable group of Islamofascists. President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld, and the rest of this administration understand this and they are doing a superb job of staying focused on the primary role of government–keeping America secure. I also think he’s been fantastic in making judicial appointments–an extremely important part of his job–from John Roberts and Sam Alito to the many qualified candidates he’s nominated to the lower courts. In terms of judicial nominations, I think he’s the best president we’ve ever had. The answer to this question could go on for far longer than you want me to, but I’d finally mention his tax policies, particularly the growth-stimulating 2003 tax cuts. This president understands the importance of stable, pro-growth tax policy in keeping American the greatest and freest nation God has ever given man.
Lopez: Who’s Heritage’s favorite Democrat?
Feulner: Part of the problem we have as a country is that we’ve become so polarized that no Democrat is really itching to earn the spot of “The Heritage Foundation’s favorite Democrat.” Jimmy Carter, it seems, would rather preach to the Angry Left on DailyKos than come by Heritage and have a serious discussion about the future of our nation. My favorite Democrats–and they are several of them–are those that are willing to participate in serious discussions with me about the policy options that will prepare our country for a bright future.