‘Let’s be defined by what we’re for and come up with solutions.”
That was the advice that newly elected Representative Barry Loudermilk (R., Ga.) gave the crowd yesterday on the first day of a two-day conservative policy summit organized by Heritage Action (of which I am CEO). He was in good company, as the summit featured nine members of Congress discussing innovative conservative policy solutions, such as the RAISE Act. Introduced by Representative Todd Rokita (R., Ind.), this legislation would remove union-imposed wage ceilings. Yes, you read that right: Conservatives are trying to help increase workers’ wages and are being opposed by organized labor.
The theme for our summit is “Opportunity for All, Favoritism to None.” In addition to the event, a new 192-page book emphasizes our goal, which is to advance conservative policies that ease the burdens on working families and create new paths to opportunity for all Americans. As Representative Jim Jordan (R., Ohio) put it yesterday, “For people like the second-grade teacher and the second-shift worker — that is who we’re supposed to represent.”
And that is where the second part of that theme — Favoritism to None — comes into play.
One of the biggest roadblocks to a reform agenda that addresses working Americans’ priorities is the establishment’s preoccupation with the concerns of well-connected special interests that tend to prefer the status quo that keeps them in the game. That preoccupation is the very thing the Tea Party most resents about today’s Republican party, and it’s what tea-party members of Congress are trying to shake up.
To get a sense of just how much this bias toward meeting the needs of government’s private clients distorts Washington’s perception of what it means to advance a real governing agenda, just look to the conclusion of the last Congress. Early this past December, as Congress prepared to wrap up its legislative year, CBS News ran a story with the headline “Congress left with big agenda, little time to get it done.”
The biggest items on that agenda were the renewal of 55 business-tax extenders consisting of corporate giveaways for the well connected, the extension of the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act — an allegedly temporary program that puts taxpayers on the hook for private losses that the insurance industry is well positioned to manage — and the notoriously pork-laden cromnibus.
It might surprise those who live in the D.C. bubble to learn that few Americans considered these bills to be “must pass.” The overwhelming majority of folks across the country are nervous about uncertain jobs or stagnant wages; anxious to make their car payments or deal with the rising prices of food, housing, and education; and forced to deal with the consequences of high levels of single parenthood.
Must-pass in America’s Crony Capital and must-pass in the rest of the country mean vastly different things.
In the book and at the summit, we argue for a bolder agenda and urge conservatives to create a political environment conducive to enacting real and meaningful reforms. Such reforms are not easy, of course, because each directly challenges the comfortable arrangements between big government and its well-connected private-sector clients.
Reform licensing rules and you anger the trade associations that depend on such restrictions for their livelihood. Reverse the push for federal K–12 standards and you anger the companies that profit from selling local schools compliant textbooks and software. End the higher-education accreditation cartel and you instigate political revolts by powerful local-college presidents. Replace Obamacare with patient-centered reform and insurance companies that receive guaranteed customers and bailouts under the law stop hosting lucrative fundraisers. Attack the growth of the regulatory state and you stoke the ire of each industry that has mastered the art of regulatory capture. Attack the rules promoting too-big-to-fail and the Chamber of Commerce finances more “pro-business” primary challengers.
But there’s a political upside as well to taking on favoritism. If the Right is consistent about opposing policies that favor the well connected, it is better positioned to highlight the Left’s own corporatism. Let Hillary Clinton’s party have the cronyism playing field to itself and the case against Democrats is even easier to make.
Those who feel sympathetic to the Left’s environmental proposals may second-guess that view if conservatives point out that such subsidies stifle innovation while promoting the financial interests of the Democratic party’s biggest donors. By attacking health-insurance-company bailouts, the Right can reverse perceptions held by some that Republicans opposed to Obamacare are shilling for the insurance industry. By putting the problem of spending growth in the context of the special benefits and intergenerational transfers that bloated budgets grant to a few lucky constituencies, conservatives make spending restraint less a question of cold austerity and more a matter of guaranteeing basic fairness.
Conservatives aren’t fighting with the party’s leaders because we want to avoid talking about policy. We fight because we want to spark the real policy conversations that can redefine the movement. Want to promote Opportunity for All? There’s no better way to start than by declaring a commitment to Favoritism to None.
— Michael A. Needham is the chief executive officer of Heritage Action for America.