Politics & Policy

The Party of Limited Government Returns?

House conservatives go grassroots and online.

The Republican Study Committee (RSC), a group of over 100 House Republicans who support limited government and lower taxes, is unveiling what its leaders are calling the American Taxpayer Bill of Rights. The initiative, which will be introduced with a press conference today and will continue to be unveiled with a series of grassroots events across the country, is meant to focus the country, and especially the Republican candidates for president, on the nation’s fiscal crisis and Congress’s epidemic of wasteful spending.

#ad#“We believe that House conservatives will embrace what we believe are four, very simple, very fundamental rights that the American taxpayer ought to have,” RSC chairman Jeb Hensarling (R., Tex.) tells National Review Online. “We call it a bill of rights because we hope one day, maybe it will be enshrined in the same place in Americans’ hearts and minds as the Bill of Rights in the Constitution.”

Of the four pillars of the RSC’s proposal, only one involves an actual amendment to the Constitution. Hensarling, a protégé of retired senator Phil Gramm, will champion a Balanced Budget Amendment. “Although we know the deficit is the symptom and spending is the disease, taxpayers ought to have the right to have their budget balanced, and balanced without tax increases.”

The other three pillars are:

Reduce wasteful spending: The Democrats announced a moratorium on earmarks when they came into power last January, but the signs on Capitol Hill indicate that it might be a very short-lived one. That’s why the RSC wants to keep the focus on curbing waste, fraud, and abuse in the congressional appropriations process.

“I applauded the Democrats when they announced the moratorium,” Hensarling says. “Unfortunately, that proposition had a rather short half-life when they had earmarks in their omnibus and they claimed that they didn’t.” Hensarling says the need for earmark reform is still an urgent priority. Earmarks may be “a small portion of the federal budget,” he says, but they are “a huge portion of the colure of spending up here.”

Reform Social Security: This pillar of the RSC’s proposal doesn’t go much farther than Al Gore’s “lockbox” idea of making it against the law for Congress to spend the Social-Security surplus on anything other than Social Security. But RSC budget-and-spending-task-force chairman John Campbell (R., Calif.) explained to a group of conservative bloggers on a conference call Tuesday that the goal he has in mind is very different. The RSC’s members eventually want private accounts, he said, but they also realize that progress toward that goal is going to be much more difficult with Democrats controlling Congress.

Hensarling says the issue of Social-Security reform points to the importance of getting the semi-conservative “blue-dog” Democrats to commit to a fiscally sane course for the country. “A blue-dog Democrat may just be the one, if they have the courage of their convictions, who can help start to reform entitlement spending.” he says. “I’m not sure a Republican can get that done in the foreseeable future.”

“Some of the [blue-dog Democrats] sounded more Republican than some of the Republican candidates,” during the 2006 campaign, Hensarling says. “They’ve got an opportunity, clearly, to put their vote where their rhetoric has been.” Hensarling says that just like moderate Republicans sometimes joined Democrats against the GOP majority, “the blue-dogs, if they so wish, could really be the leaders in bringing some kind of accountability and fiscal responsibility to future generations.”

Hensarling did not say what mechanisms the RSC will use to get firm commitments from the blue dogs, but he says, “We stand ready to work with them.”

Sunset the Tax Code: The RSC proposes legislation to sunset the nine-million-word IRS tax code on January 1st, 2011, which is the day that all of the Bush tax cuts expire. “It’s important for people to focus on what kind of tax burden they’re going to be faced with in the next few years,” Hensarling says. “Just with the government programs that are in place today, not programs that are dreamed up tomorrow, the next generation will be looking at a tax increase somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 100 percent. That’s unconscionable.” 

As for what might replace the tax code, House conservatives are less sure. Some favor a national sales tax, while others favor a flat tax. But this leg of the RSC’s proposal is meant to move past those differences, Campbell said on the conference call, and to put the focus on the need for a simpler code.

If these proposals sound short on actual legislative initiatives, that’s because the RSC wants to establish an agreement on the basics before moving on to the hard stuff. “We know that the American people are frustrated with what they have seen coming from Washington over the past couple of years,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) tells NRO.  “They are in search of solutions. Those of us in the fiscally responsible RSC all agree on these principles, and we are going to work to find solutions.”

After Campbell, Hensarling and Blackburn finished explaining the proposals on Tuesday’s conference call, conservative bloggers were sympathetic but skeptical. Their questions focused on tactics. Most of them wanted to know how Republicans planned to succeed in making these notoriously difficult reforms where so many previous attempts have failed.

“None of us are here to guarantee you results,” Hensarling finally said. But he did point to something that has changed since the last time most of these reforms were attempted. “You’re part of the solution,” he said, meaning bloggers. “There are monitoring technologies available this time that haven’t been in place before.”

At least one RSC member is putting that idea into practice. Campbell, a CPA, became the latest politician to join the blogosphere with the launch of the blog Green Eyeshade on Tuesday. “The mainstream media (MSM) rarely reports the proposed solutions that will fix things,” he wrote in his first post.

By reaching out to bloggers and by joining them online, House conservatives are using a new technology to take some familiar proposals over the heads of the gatekeepers and put them directly before the American public. The same idea motivated the president’s Social-Security reform tour in early 2005, as well as the Porkbusters movement later that year. The former flopped because Republicans in Congress lacked the courage to confront the issue. The latter has succeeded, at least temporarily, because Democrats have realized the political advantage of pretending to be against earmarks.

Whether the American Taxpayer Bill of Rights flops or succeeds depends on whether Republicans got the message voters sent last November and start acting like the party of limited government again.

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