The decision by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay not to attempt to keep that position — though he still claims he will be vindicated soon of the campaign-finance violations with which he has been charged in Texas — has opened up a race to fill that post. It should be an occasion for a wide-ranging discussion among House Republicans, reaching far beyond the particular candidates, about just what kind of party they want to be.
When the Republicans, after 40 years in the political wilderness, achieved majority status in the House in 1994, they could point to a Contract with America and a number of other explicit and implicit promises. They were going to be the party of reform, of fiscal responsibility, of principled adherence to the precepts of limited government. For a while they acted as if they meant it. Of late, however, it has been hard to distinguish them, in their enthusiasm for pork-barrel spending and spending in general, from the Democrats.
Ironically or predictably, it became more difficult for them to hold to their stated principles once a Republican president — at least this particular one — moved into the White House.
Under President Bush, domestic discretionary spending — spending unrelated to military activities or the “war on terror” — has risen at a faster clip than under any president since Lyndon B. Johnson. President Bush has not vetoed a single bill, spending or otherwise.
Despite an occasional rhetorical bow to conservative principles, his first instinct when confronted with any perceived problem, from education to medical care to immigration, is a new government program, higher spending, or increased intrusion by the national government into decisions traditionally made by state or local governments or by individual citizens. This tendency to trust in government power, of course, has been intensified by the terrorist attacks of 2001.
House members are traditionally deferential to a president from the same party, so with a few exceptions House Republicans have gone along. DeLay, although he was not that close personally to Bush, facilitated the tendency to expand government by being a skillful and sometimes ruthless legislative manager. His legacy may be what some call “K Street Conservatism,” symbolized by his urging that the lobbyists, associations and special interests who typically have offices along that Washington street hire people identified as Republicans.
Lobbying is protected by the Constitution (the right to petition government) and can be an honorable undertaking. But the essence of what K Street functionaries do is to seek favorable treatment from government on behalf of the interest groups that hire them. Some lobbyists try to protect industries or associations from government interference, but most soon discover that asking for special treatment, favors, subsidies or punishment of competitors from government is more likely to be successful.
Government’s natural tendency is to grow. Thus lobbyists and the tendency of government (like any bureaucracy) to want to expand become hands that wash one another. Getting more Republicans involved in this game is profoundly subversive of the idea of limited government.
Buffeted by scandal, with a president looking increasingly like a lame duck in his second term, House Republicans have an opportunity to return to their limited-government roots, insofar as those roots are still viable. If the vote in early
February is preceded by widespread and searching discussion of whether Republicans exist simply to be re-elected and direct taxpayers’ money to the interests they favor or to renew their dedication to limited, constitutional government, they might have a chance to redeem themselves.