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The Failure of the Republican Revolution


In a 1996 presidential debate, Republican nominee Bob Dole declared, “The president wants to increase spending 20 percent over the next six years. I want to increase spending 14 percent. That’s how simple it is…. We’re talking about six points over six years.” This was the pathetic choice the Republicans offered the American people in 1996. Thus, it should have been no surprise that many members of the Republican Congress reelected that year turned out to be lackeys of big government.

A high point for the 105th Congress was the renaming of Washington National Airport after Ronald Reagan. This was trumpeted as a great achievement — as proof of the permanent change in values in Washington that Reagan and his party began in the 1980s. Instead, it became simply a bitter reminder of politicians’ usual substitution of flim-flam for honest achievement.

Nothing symbolizes the failure of the Congress better than the budget deal reached last October. At that time, House Speaker Newt Gingrich proclaimed that he was “so proud of the budget negotiations” that produced the 4,000-page, 40-pound agreement between Republican leaders and President Clinton. Gingrich derided conservative critics of the agreement for wanting to be “petty dictators” imposing their own agenda.

Few congressmen read much of the bill before voting on it, and perhaps the Speaker also lacked the time to scrutinize the details of what he helped produced. However, it is in the details that government power expands — and where the promises of Gingrich and other Republican leaders were broken.

Perhaps the most important part of the October budget agreement was what it did not include — meaningful tax reduction. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that the federal government will forcibly collect more than $1.3 trillion in excess of federal spending over the next five years. Gingrich promoted a tax cut of $70 billion or $80 billion dollars over five years. He declared on October 16 that “that was about the right amount” — even though it amounted to less than 1 percent of federal revenues over that time. (The Senate rejected the House-passed tax cut and instead substituted a tax cut of roughly $9 billion over 5 years.)

Yet, at the same time that Gingrich believed that a 1 percent tax reduction is what people deserve, federal tax revenue was soaring. Since 1994, the year Republicans took over Congress, federal tax revenues have increased by more than 25 percent. Republicans are overseeing a federal tax system that gives Congress huge unearned windfall profits every year — and the slightest little rebate is treated as proof of congressmen’s munificence. There was little or no popular support for this surge in confiscation, and congressmen pretend that because the increased tax burden results automatically from the current tax code, no one in Congress has any responsibility for the increased taxes.

At the same time, thanks to the existing federal tax system, the IRS is confiscating far more of Americans’ money each year. A 1998 report by Congress’s Joint Tax Committee concluded that “hidden taxes force more than 33 million Americans into higher tax brackets” than they are aware of. House Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Archer of Texas declared that such covert tax increases are “akin to false advertising by the government.” For instance, the self-employed will be hit with an increase of up to 6 percent in Social Security taxes in 1999, as the maximum base on which self-employment taxes must be paid rises from $68,400 to $72,600. Yet Republican leaders rarely deign to notice such tax hikes.

Gingrich also bragged at a Republican pep rally in October that this Congress “did change the Internal Revenue Service and we returned the burden of proof to the government and we protected individuals from government’s intervention.” It is a national blessing to have a House Speaker with a healthy fantasy life but sometimes it gets in the way of accuracy. Regarding the bill that Congress passed this spring, the burden of proof is shifted only for a small number of court cases. The IRS retains its “presumption of correctness” in all its other dealings with taxpayers — which means that the agency will continue to send out millions of unjustified tax-deficiency and penalty letters and that Americans will continue to pay billions of unowed penalties and surcharges to Uncle Sam. And as far as protecting people from government intervention, as long as the tax code is an incomprehensible monstrosity, IRS agents will continue to have sweeping arbitrary power over private citizens.

One of the most controversial parts of the budget deal was the increased federal spending for education. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) said the new funding for education was “the biggest victory of all, and the one we are most proud of.” Gingrich sought to vindicate the new spending: “We said the local school board would make the decision, no new federal bureaucracy, no new state bureaucracy; not a penny in the bill that was passed goes to pay for bureaucracy; all of it goes to the local school districts….” Perhaps Gingrich thinks that all virtue rests in the word “local” — and that local school districts are miraculously incapable of boondoggles. Some local school board headquarters buildings compare rather nicely to headquarters of multinational corporations.

Gingrich implied that the new program will not undermine local freedom because congressmen have done such a wise job in writing the legislation. Gingrich claims, first, that the new money will come with no strings attached — and second, that not a cent of the money will be spent for school bureaucrats. If there are no strings attached, then there will be little or no control over how the money is spent. Gingrich told a Republican gathering that “we said the local school board, because we believe it is American to have local people working with local teachers to have local children get an education under local control.”

Gingrich may not have noticed but, in recent decades, school boards in many places across the country have become powerless window dressing for bureaucracies and unions. An additional slopping of federal money is not going to reverse the effect of trends going back over half a century. And how is it possible that encouraging local school systems to rely on federal handouts to hire teachers will not undermine their independence? The only way the new program would not endanger local freedom is if, miraculously, all future members of Congress and all political appointees lost all their desire to use the power within their grasp. Federal subsidies lead to federal controls because politicians like political power.

Besides, there is an overwhelming amount of research that shows that marginal changes in class size provide no educational benefit to children. The National Right to Work Committee announced that, thanks to the new program, “teacher union officials can expect to rake in up to $60 million in additional dues money per year.” (In 20 states, teachers must either pay union dues or lose their jobs.)

Gingrich also sought to portray the $18 billion ponied up for the International Monetary Fund as a Republican victory — since Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) and Gingrich required Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin to promise that the IMF would be reformed before they signed off on the bailout.

Once again, fantasy trumps reality. The IMF is notorious for imposing “conditionality” on loan recipients and then continuing to disburse loans after a government betrays its reform promises. Why should anyone expect the IMF itself to act any differently? (The budget act also lavished over $10 billion in foreign aid on the usual suspects, including Egypt, Israel, and North Korea.)

Gingrich bragged in August that the Republican Congress had reformed the Food and Drug Administration with a bill passed earlier this year. However, in the rush to leave town, the Senate confirmed long-time agency bureaucrat Jane Henney as new chief of the FDA. Henney, according to former FDA biotechnology directory and Hoover Institute fellow Henry Miller, “shamefully permitted the politicalization of regulatory policies” and “collaborated prominently in the disastrous government decisions that needlessly left millions of women fearful and confused and that destroyed the implant industry.” One might have expected Republicans to pay more attention after the preceding FDA director, David Kessler, turned out to be both a regulatory fanatic and a political turncoat. The confirmation of Henney was typical of the gross negligence that both houses of Congress have shown for any issue more complex than flag burning.

In comments during the last week Congress was in regular session, Gingrich seemed as out of touch with America and political reality as any preceding Democratic House Speaker. He defended the budget agreement by saying that “in a free society when you are sharing power between the legislative and executive branch, that is precisely the outcome you should expect to get.” But the definition of a free society turns not on whether the legislators and executive branch folks share power — but on whether government power is limited and people’s rights and property are secure. Gingrich, snapping at conservative criticisms, declared in a floor speech: “In a free society you have to give and take.” Presumably, the more that politicians take from other people, the freer society becomes. The biggest victory for freedom that Gingrich scored in recent months was his high-profile campaign to stop the Transportation Department from spending any money to issue regulations requiring airlines to create peanut-free zones. (People with peanut allergies had demanded such areas.)

In a sneering appeal to Republicans to vote for the budget agreement, Gingrich declared, “Those of us who have grown up and matured … understand that we have to work together” with the Democrats. As usual, the more time a politician spends in Washington, the more he enters into a conspiracy against average citizens.

Regrettably, in the battles over the budget, there was no reason to suspect that most members of Congress on either side of the aisle realized that they were spending other people’s money — that they have a moral responsibility for the proper expenditure of every dollar that they authorize IRS agents to confiscate. Sen. Rod Grams (R-Minn.) summed up the dilemma facing Republicans on the budget agreement: “If we don’t take a stand today, what’s going to happen to make us more courageous a year from now?” Grams voted against the bill — but most Republicans stampeded to the congressional leadership’s victory party.

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    James Bovard is a policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a USA Today columnist and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader’s Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of Public Policy Hooligan (2012); Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book’s Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.