Politics & Policy

Armey On The House

The former House majority leader on the current leadership race.

Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey sees a similarity between himself and Rep. Mike Pence, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee who decided not to run in the current leadership race despite receiving encouragement from conservatives fed up with the status quo. Armey retired from Congress in 2002, but since then he’s been busy leading FreedomWorks, a D.C.-based grassroots organization that advocates lower taxes, less government and more freedom. (Full disclosure: I used to work there, so I’m kind of partial to the organization’s goals–but if you’re reading NRO, you could be, too.)

Armey could have won reelection easily, but decided that after nine terms in the House, he could be a more effective advocate for conservative causes as chairman of FreedomWorks. He says he saw the same decision-making process at work when he read Pence’s memo to his RSC colleagues announcing his decision not to run for a leadership position.

“There was something very telling in that memo that reminded me of where I was just before I left Congress,” Armey tells NRO. “Mike said he can most effectively work for the things he believes in as chair of the Republican Study Committee. I think he’s right. If you take the responsibilities of Leader with a President that’s not necessarily working for your priorities, then you might find your abilities compromised.”

Armey says he sees a two-man race for majority leader–between Roy Blunt and John Boehner–and that either man will face a compelling need to reestablish the GOP as the party of spending restraint and fiscal responsibility. Asked whether Blunt or Boehner are too close to the previous, compromised leadership to restore the integrity of the party, Armey tells NRO, “Obviously John Boehner doesn’t have that problem. But Blunt is a decent guy, and he should get benefit the doubt. He’s never been free to be his own man in Congress, and if he’s elected then he’d be free to assert himself, and I don’t think we should reject out of hand the possibility that he could be exactly what we’re looking for.

“The question is does he rise to the occasion when he’s really free to do it on his own terms.”

As for the younger guys on the Republican Study Committee–porkbusters like Pence and Rep. Jeff Flake from Arizona–Armey says they can be most effective as an influential voting block that pulls the leadership to the right, regardless of who wins. “You’ve got some real solid people there in these young people, but for right now they should recognize that if we’ve got a new leadership team that’s incentivized for change, they can say, ‘We’re standing for what we’ve always stood for. We’ve got a core block of votes, and we will vote with you or not depending on whether you share our vision.’”

Army says: “Now we don’t have any evidence that either Boehner or Blunt fail to share that vision. So I think after the election they can say, ‘All right, you’ve won your slot, now we can sit down and talk turkey.’”

For Rep. Flake, however, the time to talk turkey is now, and the burden of proof is on Blunt and Boehner to convince him and his RSC colleagues that they are serious about budget reform. “Maybe it is a two-man race, but at a minimum myself and [Rep.] Charlie Bass are asking folks to hold back commitments until these candidates put more flesh on their reform agendas,” Flake tells NRO. “With something this important we ought to have a little more detail.”

If neither is willing to step up, Flake says that there’s a lot of time left before the elections. “[Rep.] John Shadegg hasn’t removed himself from the race, he just hasn’t been actively campaigning as hard,” Flake says. “Three weeks from now, as this Abramoff thing continues to unfold, we might find ourselves saying, ‘Maybe we didn’t get it.’ We need not just new leaders, but a course correction here.”

Armey and Flake have tremendous respect for each other (Armey says, “For an old Goldwater baby like me there’s something refreshing about one of the leading conservatives on this being from Arizona), and they agree on what each sees as the key to restoring the Republican party. Armey was one of the authors of the Contract With America–the vision of small-government conservative values that brought Republicans to power in 1994–and argues that in order to return to those values, the House of Representatives needs to take the initiative back from the White House in passing legislation.

“If you go back to ‘95, ‘96, or ‘97, our vision was best served when the House acted on its own terms and acted first,” Armey says. “I think this House leadership needs to go back to where they were in ‘95 and say, ‘Mr. President, we like you and we support you, but the legislative process starts with us, and we will create legislation consistent with our vision.’”

When asked if he agreed, Flake told NRO, “You bet. If you look at the last two sessions–in 2001, the first piece of legislation we got was No Child Left Behind. In 2003, the first piece was the prescription drug benefit. Now some of us didn’t vote for either, but most of the conference said, ‘We’ve got to get this done for the president.’

“That feeling is no longer there. Both of those laws violated the principles of limited government. So I think in 2006 we’ll be much more willing to act.”

Finally, Armey puts the leadership race into perspective with one of his “Armey’s Axioms“: The idea is bigger than the man.

“We need to get beyond personalities and get back to big ideas,” he says. “We need to be asking how can I serve this job, and not be asking what’s in this job for me.”

Stephen Spruiell reports on the media for National Review Online’s Media Blog.

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