Fiscal Conservatism

It seems some people need a reminder of what fiscal conservatism is all about. As the folks at ITA reported this week, ten years after the Gingrich revolution, a good number of those freshmen Speaker Newt brought to power with him* have abandoned their fiscal conservative roots and are now contributing to the problem of an ever-increasing government.

What causes stuff like this to happen? First off, I don’t think President Bush escapes blame, because as the writer notes, the government has increased faster under Bush than it did under Clinton. But more importantly, there is the problem of incumbancy. It’s a lot easier to be opposed to new programs when you’re in the political opposition and don’t have any control over the government’s purse strings. When you’re in power, however, you have to deal with (a) the hard job of telling people, including your political allies, that they should do things for themselves and (b) the temptation to use government funds to get yourself re-elected (aka “the Robert Byrd manuever”). Representatives know which porkbarrel projects in their home districts will result in a five point bounce in the polls. The temptation to just vote “yes” and look the other way is just too great. True fiscal conservatism — which consists of more than just tax cuts, by the way — takes a good deal of intestinal fortitude.

An undergraduate history professor of mine was fond of saying that “strict constructionism is the ideology of the party out of power.” As a college Republican, I took exception to that, but I see his point. You’ll never hear the refrain “the government can’t do that” or “that’s unconstitutional” from those running the show. It’s those without power that want the government to be held in check. Those in power, on the other hand, don’t want to have restrictions on what they can and can’t do. As I said above, I think the same thing can apply with government spending. With rare exceptions, congressmen and women don’t want to be told they can’t spend money on a project, especially if it will help them at the polls. I wouldn’t go so far as to say “fiscal restraint is only for those out of power,” but the historical evidence is compelling.

* I should note that I’ve been represented by two of the men on the list: Tom Davis of Virginia and Rodney Frehlinghuysen of New Jersey. Davis follows the trend of becoming looser with the purse strings since being in office, but Frehlinghuysen, suprisingly, is just one of two (Sue Myrick is the other) to have gotten more fiscally conservative over the past ten years (though just by a very small margin). Go Rodney!

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