Rep. Mike Pence (R., Ind.) and Rep. John Boehner (R., Ohio) are in a head-to-head race for House minority leader now that Rep. Joe Barton (R., Tex.) has bowed out. Both candidates are solid conservatives. And each has expressed a welcome commitment to return the party to the principles of limited government. That said, one candidate stands out as the best choice, based on his conservative background and the unique role the next Republican leader must play. That candidate is Mike Pence, who already has been serving very effectively as a minority leader of sorts in his role as chairman of the Republican Study Committee (RSC).
Democrats won the House from Republicans, but they didn’t win it from conservatives who were already in the minority. The big-government Republicans too often governed like Democrats, dramatically expanding non-defense spending, creating a massive new entitlement program, and establishing a massive new regulatory apparatus in Sarbanes-Oxley, all while stalling the push for tax and Social Security reform.
Boehner has been an able House majority leader in a short stint, and always has been a strong opponent of earmarks — one of the symbols of big-government excess that led to the GOP’s November 7 defeat. Indeed Boehner, unlike Pence, voted against last year’s bloated highway bill. To Pence’s credit, however, when the federal budget outlook deteriorated because of Hurricane Katrina, he quickly led an effort to rescind the earmarks in the highway bill while pursuing other aggressive reductions in wasteful spending. The earmark reform that passed the House under Boehner’s leadership was a considerable achievement, but comprehensive earmark reform must go further. Pence, along with the RSC, have led the fight on this issue.
Unlike Boehner, Pence voted against the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, and did so in the face of unrelenting pressure from the White House. His effort very nearly killed the bill, failing by just one vote in the wee hours of the morning.
The Medicare drug benefit, by itself, created a larger unfunded liability for taxpayers (about $18 trillion) than the entire Social Security shortfall. The bill represented a cynical triumph of perceived political interest over principled governance. With the creation of new health care entitlements a likely ambition of Democrats, it is critical that the House minority leader be willing to stand up and make the case against such ostensibly popular programs. Ultimately, good policy is also good politics, as the many former congressmen who supported the drug benefit now know.
Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman has called the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 the biggest problem facing the U.S. economy today, and some economists have estimated the total market impact of this vast regulatory apparatus to be in excess of $1 trillion. Pence voted for this law, and can be forgiven since nearly everyone else did too: It passed 423 to 3. However, Pence, unlike Boehner, has tried to reduce this regulatory burden. He is a co-sponsor of legislation, along with RSC member Tom Feeney (R., Fla.), that would pare back the worst excesses of the law. This is a uniquely fertile area of potential pro-growth bipartisan action since soon-to-be-speaker Nancy Pelosi also has expressed a desire to revisit Sarbanes-Oxley.
On a wide variety of other issues — from asbestos litigation reform to indexing the capital-gains tax to opposing minimum-wage increases — Pence can be counted on to routinely stake principled pro-growth positions. Under Pence, the RSC has been a powerful economic-policy force, a beacon of principle and the conscience of the party.
A Republican strategy of repudiating pork-barrel, big-government spending will open the door for a return to limited government, which is what won the twin revolutions of 1980 and 1994. The entire Republican conference must now become as dedicated to this principle, and as steadfast in its opposition to the expansion of government, as the RSC has been. This is exactly why the RSC’s leader should become the Republicans’ leader in the House.
– Phil Kerpen is a policy analyst in Washington. His web site is PhilKerpen.com.