Ethics & Public Policy Center

A Plan for Fiscal Hawks

Published in National Review - May 28, 2018 issue on May 31, 2018


The passage of the omnibus spending bill again showed how unwilling the Republican majority is to hold the line on, much less cut, government spending. This has predictably depressed activists and members of Congress who are committed to that goal. So far, however, they seem to be at a loss about what to do to reverse the tide. Here’s one radical idea that could work: Small-government congressmen and activists should consciously think of themselves as if they were a separate political party.

Their political strategy for over a decade has been built around the faulty assumption that the Republican party already is the small-government party. Spending-cut advocates believe that most Republican voters prioritize spending cuts as much as they do. Failure to enact cuts, in this view, is due entirely to a feckless and cowardly leadership. Elect enough members to change the leadership, the thinking goes, and the spending cuts will flow like water rushing through a broken dam.

The truth is much different. As the 2016 presidential primaries showed, while the clear majority of Republican voters might wish for spending restraint, they prioritize other preferences. Restricting immigration, cutting taxes, fighting terrorism, and protecting religious liberty rank far higher on GOP priority lists than does cutting or limiting spending. Both the president and the congressional leadership know this and sensibly expend their political capital on those items. Fiscal conservatives get pushed to the curb under that scenario because they represent only a small portion of the total GOP alliance.

Here’s where acting as if you were a separate party comes in. Small parties in other countries often wield influence well beyond their numbers because they form explicit coalition agreements with larger parties in exchange for their support. The larger parties rarely have a majority, and to get one they need to cut deals with the smaller fish. The small parties negotiate with the larger ones and sign formal, written agreements that lay out exactly what legislation a majority coalition will pursue. The small parties don’t get everything they want, but in exchange for their support they get the things they need.

Republicans who want spending restraint are in the same situation. They probably represent only about 10 to 15 percent of the total Republican-voting electorate, but without their support Republicans cannot win. That gives the fiscal-restraint advocates a strong hand to play, if they play it correctly.

Acting like a separate party would give small-government conservatives the power they currently lack. Under this scenario, members of the House Freedom Caucus would announce that they will not support anyone for speaker or vote for any proposed legislation from the GOP leadership unless the potential speaker signs an agreement covering the entire legislative agenda for the two-year session. The caucus would then produce a “party platform” that declared their priorities and that would serve as the basis for their negotiations on the agreement’s terms.

Senators of a similar mind — Paul, Cruz, maybe Lee or some others — would adopt a similar approach. They too would band together and refuse to vote to organize the Senate unless the Senate majority leader also gave them a signed agreement covering the draft agenda for the session.

The risks to such an approach are obvious. These members would initially be castigated as disloyal rebels, and immense pressure would be brought to bear to bring them to heel. But that is what is already happening, in many instances. Their failure to make clear their stances well beforehand means that when the pressure comes they are both more inclined to fold and likely to get less for their holdout. Time and again the small-government crowd either caves for very little or gets outvoted when the speaker or majority leader, who need not fear removal from office in the absence of a deal, reaches across the aisle for Democratic votes.

Small-government conservatives wield their maximum power before the leaders are elected, not afterward. Democrats will never vote to install a Republican speaker or majority leader, and there is no support within either party for a formal bipartisan leadership. That means that the only time fiscal conservatives can force leadership to listen is when their ability to hold out can prevent Congress from operating. Leadership aspirants then have to deal, because they have no other choice.

Small-government conservatives would not get anything close to their hearts’ desires in such a deal. But they could, with prudent negotiating, bargain for small cuts here and there. Progress might finally be made on cutting the discretionary spending programs in line with what Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, sent to the Hill to no avail. Or perhaps some minor but cost-saving reforms, such as adding work-effort requirements for food stamps, could be negotiated in some entitlements.

Such a course of action might cause other groups within the GOP to act on a similar strategy, but that is a good thing. The Republican majority currently does virtually nothing because there is no clear agenda for the party to pursue. Negotiations among party factions before the speaker and Senate majority leader are elected will force members to prioritize what they want and commit to doing it. That can only help the party to govern and, to the extent possible, distinguish congressional Republicans from the man in the White House.

A shrewd reader will note what appears to be a flaw in this plan. Senate filibuster rules would allow Democrats to block any law they didn’t like that was passed in accord with such an agreement. Republican leaders would presumably use that possibility to violate their pledge, pleading necessity and then turning up the pressure on the recalcitrant conservatives. But there are two ways to get around that.

The first is to insist on the passage of a budget and reconciliation package each year. Since reconciliation bills require only a majority to pass, Senate Democrats cannot block them. Any spending cuts or restraints should be required by the signed agreement to be brought up through reconciliation rather than through an omnibus or regular order.

The second and by far preferable approach is to limit the use of the filibuster for partisan purposes. While the filibuster itself has become a hallowed Senate tradition, its use by the minority party to force the majority to deal with it is of quite recent vintage. When used as often as it has been, by both parties, it effectively forces a permanent coalition government between Democrats and Republicans. Given how vast the differences are between those two sides, it is no surprise that government often comes to a standstill.

James Madison warned in Federalist No. 22 about the problems of requiring unanimity in government decisions, as the partisan filibuster effectively does. “Unanimity in public bodies, or of something approaching towards it,” would “destroy the energy of government,” he wrote. Presciently, he went on as if he were describing our own times:

Hence, tedious delays; continuous negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. And yet, in such a system, it is even fortunate when such compromises can take place: for, upon some occasions, things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated.

The partisan filibuster is an unconscionable wrench in our republican government’s machinery. It must be destroyed.

There are many ways to accomplish that. Perhaps one can simply require that any filibuster obtain the votes of at least five members of another party. Perhaps one can require a series of votes with the number of senators required to vote for cloture dropping to a mere majority if a majority declares the bill to be of immediate import. Perhaps one can limit the number of times a minority party can use its filibuster against legislation supported by the majority. The means can be negotiated, but the end result must be the removal of the partisan filibuster as a tactic to enforce permanent bipartisan government.

Small-government conservatives have already tasted the bitter fruits of betrayal and defeat. For them, these have been the worst of times. Why not try the approach outlined here and hope to bring about the best?

— Mr. Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an editor at UnHerd.com, and the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.

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