Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, in his maiden speech Wednesday, invoked the Clay family, who in the 19th century produced two Bluegrass State greats: Sen. Henry Clay, the famed Whig compromiser, and Cassius Clay, his abolitionist cousin.
Paul, who sits at Henry’s desk, grappled with the pair’s legacy. Henry Clay, he noted, is a darling of historians, but it is Cassius Clay, an unapologetic agitator, who captures his eye. “A venomous pen was his first weapon of choice, a Bowie knife his second,” Paul said, smiling slightly. “He was so effective with the one, he found it wise to have the other handy.”
These days, Paul may not wield a blade for self-defense, but the youthful 48-year-old is itching to slash the federal budget. In his first month, the rookie Republican has quickly taken up arms: He founded the Tea Party Caucus, pushed for a Federal Reserve audit, issued a sharp video response to the State of the Union, and introduced his own balanced-budget amendment.
Most notable, however, is Paul’s Beltway-busting budget, which aims to cut $500 billion this fiscal year. In an interview with National Review Online, Paul touts his blueprint as the opening shot of his crusade to shake up Washington. “This is just the beginning,” he says. “It’s time to get serious.”
An eye surgeon by trade, Paul plans to needle his GOP colleagues to get specific about where to take the scalpel. Senate Republicans, he sighs, agree that the budget needs balancing and that spending needs to be cut. “But many of them do not want to stand up and say where they would cut.”
“My fear is that a lot of those who are squawking are not fiscal conservatives,” Paul says. “My fear is that many are big-government conservatives. That’s sort of an oxymoron, I know, but they certainly exist.”
While it has little chance of passing in a Democratic-controlled chamber, the provocative Paul budget will force conversation. Its $500 billion in cuts is much higher than the $100 billion House Republicans have pledged to chop.
“People in official Washington think this a pretty bold, maybe overly bold, proposition,” Paul chuckles. “But it only cuts about a third of the annual deficit.”
For one, it nearly eliminates the Department of Education. It also guts federal HUD housing funds, upends the Department of Commerce, and chokes off funding for the Department of Energy. The Department of Health and Human Services loses $26.5 billion. Legions of big-government fiefdoms are chucked. Federal arts programs disappear. The Smithsonian is privatized.
And the cuts go across the board. Paul argues that Republicans need to clip the defense budget; Democrats, he adds, need to stop ladling cash to domestic bureaucrats. Paul’s plan, for example, would impose a 2.7 percent cut (below 2010 levels) at the Department of Defense. Overseas contingency funding would be reduced by $16 billion; funds for military personnel by $14 billion.
Paul leaves Social Security and Medicare untouched. For the time being, he does not wish to wade into those waters. Instead, he wants both parties to think hard about deep cuts in every other nook of the budget, from food stamps to missiles. “In this original bill, we wanted to show how much we could cut without even getting into entitlements,” he says.
On education, for instance, Paul says Republicans need to stand firm and stop tossing federal dollars at a state and local problem. He calls the Bush administration’s approach “wrongheaded” and is a harsh critic of No Child Left Behind.
“I do not think that there is a constitutional mandate for the federal government to be involved in education,” Paul says. “I think it should be a state and local function. We believe in local control of schools — this has been a general part of the Republican platform, as well as the Republican philosophy, for years. That being said, our party, in recent years, went the opposite way.”
On foreign aid, which he hopes to zero out, Paul takes a similar tack. He pulls no punches: Israel, for example, one of the U.S.’s closest allies, would see $3 billion in aid cut. “We just don’t have the money anymore, even for our allies,” he explains.
“If you ask the American people if we should borrow money from China to give it to another foreign country, they look at you like you have three eyes,” Paul says. “Our foreign aid has a bad history of allowing theft and aggrandizement throughout the Third World. A lot of that money has been taken and used personally by autocratic leaders.”
Unsurprisingly, Paul’s budget has not generated waves of support in the GOP conference. Groups such as J Street and the Republican Jewish Coalition have sounded the alarm about his stance on aid to Israel. Most senators are keeping mum. But Paul remains undaunted.
“We are going to have a debt crisis in this country,” Paul predicts. “Rather than wait till we are in the predicament that Greece, or Portugal, or Spain, or Ireland is in, I think we start proposing solutions now. Maybe folks won’t listen, but maybe they will remember, should the crisis come, that there were some of us who were unafraid to propose these solutions.”
Indeed, as Paul asked on the Senate floor, his voice rising: “Who are our heroes? Are we fascinated and enthralled by the Great Compromiser or his cousin Cassius Clay?”
For Rand Paul, the answer is easy.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.