For Republicans, the Moment for Reform Has Arrived

For Republicans, the Moment for Reform Has Arrived

By Sen. Tom Coburn - September 24, 2010

For Republicans, the most important question leading into November is not how many seats we might gain, but what will we do if we gain them. Having lived through the rise and fall of the 1994 Republican Revolution I'm convinced that if the Republican Party does not reform itself this time, it will die. It will no longer exist and I won't be a part of it.

Our mandate, should we gain seats, will be simple: stop wasteful spending and slow the growth of government. Call it the contract to live within our means. Republicans can set three core priorities around this mandate that will bolster the party's credibility far beyond November.

First, Republicans should offset any new spending and eliminate waste.

Paying for new spending instead of borrowing is a potent economic and political argument that is at the heart of the tea party movement. The American people understand that the debate about spending is about national survival. It's time for Republicans to get serious about cutting wasteful Washington spending and ending the establishment's fetish for borrowing.

We should boldly argue that in today's economy, restraint is stimulus. Research by economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff' suggests the size of our debt may already slowing our economy by one point of Gross Domestic Product each year. In 2009, Obama economic advisers Christina Romer and Jared Bernstein told Congress "that a one percent increase in GDP corresponds to an increase in employment of approximately one million jobs ... [t]his has been the rough correspondence over history." In other words, not growing the GDP by one point because of our debt means one million jobs will not be created. Everyone knows this problem will grow much worse as the unfunded liabilities of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security pile up.

The current majority had a chance to demonstrate restraint but their pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) mechanism, which was supposed to pay new spending with cuts or tax increases, has been a joke. The Senate has made a mockery of its own rules, waiving PAYGO six times since it was adopted in February in order to add more than $266 billion to the debt. Republicans now have a historic opportunity to step up and get serious about living within our means.

Second, Republicans should continue to signal their intent to focus on serious oversight, not partisan witch hunts.

One of the lessons from 1994 is that our leaders did a poor job of building a case for a limited government reform agenda. We have to methodically build our case through rigorous and disciplined oversight. The vast amount of waste and sheer stupidity in government - from the Pentagon to the Food and Drug Administration - could fill committee agendas for years. My office alone has identified at least $350 billion in wasteful Washington spending and, in just a few weeks, we identified 640 duplicative programs. The American people would be elated if Congress delivered more oversight and greater efficiency instead of new programs and more debt.

Finally, Republicans in both chambers should embrace a total earmark moratorium.

For Republicans, earmarks are the ultimate mixed message. Railing against Big Government while peddling for pork has decimated our brand and credibility as a party of reform and limited government. The vapid constitutional argument for earmarks - the power of the purse gives the Congress the right to do whatever it pleases - is from the same school of constitutional theory that brought us Obamacare and a broad interpretation of the Commerce Clause that, according to Elena Kagan, gives Congress the authority to tell the American people to eat their fruits and vegetables every day.

James Madison blasted this blank check interpretation of the Constitution. He wrote, "With respect to the two words ‘general welfare' ... [t]o take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators."

Still, Republican Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) seems interested in supporting earmarks if the projects have "merit." Republicans tried this approach after 1994 and squandered a historic opportunity to reform Washington. Many of the most notorious earmarks, such as the Bridge to Nowhere and the Teapot Museum, were Republican earmarks.

The earmark favor factory needs to be boarded up and demolished, not turned over to new management that may or may not have a better eye for earmarks with "merit." If Democrats want to be the party of pork, let them. A Republican party preoccupied with repaving sidewalks and playing mayor is never going to capture the imagination and trust of the American people. Nor will it gain the political authority necessary to tackle our greater budget challenges. If we want do to big things like repeal and replace Obamacare and reform entitlements, we first must be responsible with the small things.

Democrats are wagering that the American people really want Big Government and that if Republicans win big in November we will overreach with slash and burn governance and an orgy of privatization and deregulation. November itself will test these tired talking point arguments but the real test will come later. Republicans should simply focus on first principles and give the American people what they want - an honest party dedicated to common sense, fiscal responsibility and limited government. If we govern to save the country, we'll do well as a party. If we govern to save ourselves we will surely lose, and we will deserve to lose. The choice is ours.

Tom Coburn is a U.S. Senator from Oklahoma.

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