Four years ago, a young Senator from Illinois promised to change Washington, D.C. As it turns out, his version of change meant doing the same thing, albeit with a bit more flare and a lot more bureaucrats. That was not the change Americans expected or deserved.
Fortunately, President Barack Obama does not hold a monopoly on changing Washington. Quietly, during the past decade, a cadre of conservative lawmakers has worked tirelessly to change Washington’s corrosive culture.
From the very beginning, though, the establishment ridiculed the conservative attempts to change Washington as simple-minded. Back in 2005, just 15 Senators voted to strip funding for the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.” Undeterred, conservatives continued their fight to end earmarks, which they rightly decried as the gateway drug to reckless spending.
Days after the 2010 elections, Republicans in both chambers backed a two-year ban on earmarks. With earmarks out of the picture in the House, the Democratic- controlled Senate succumbed to public and political pressure, instituting its own ban about 40 days later.
Ever since, Democrats have sought to return to the “good ol’ days” of wooden arrows, indoor rainforests and bridges to nowhere. After more than a year of whining, they have found sympathetic allies in many senior Republicans, including House leadership.
When the tea party wave crashed into Washington, it upset the balance of the establishment. Conservative lawmakers put the status quo on trial and challenged conventional wisdom at every turn, and along the way, they have scored some significant victories. It was too much for many longtime lawmakers to handle, and now they are fighting back.
Nowhere is that more obvious than on the issue of transportation. For decades, lawmakers joined hands to spend money on highways, hydrangeas and high-speed rail. The 2005 highway bill, which marked Congressional Republicans’ official transition from revolutionary to establishment, should have been a national embarrassment. Instead, almost 98 percent of lawmakers voted in favor of a bill that authorized $284 billion in spending and more than 6,300 earmarks.
Last year, House Republican leaders scoffed when we told them a new highway bill would be a tough sell to conservatives. Not only did they underestimate the resolve of conservative lawmakers, they also underestimated the insatiable appetite for spending and the lingering desire for pork among the more establishment elements of their party.
In the past, lawmakers were more than willing to “take one for the team” if there was something in it for them. The vote counters understand earmarks grease the skids, but while conservatives are increasingly leery of that game, others desperately want the ability to tout earmark projects back home.
All of the legislative battles are interconnected, each victory paving the way for bigger, more important victories in the future. The opposite holds true, too. A reversal on earmarks paves the way for bigger defeats in the very near future.
Congress faces a similar situation with the farm bill. For decades, lawmakers have used the farm bill to shape America’s farm and food policy, funneling subsidies to certain agriculture interests and money toward welfare programs such as food stamps and mandating increased ethanol production.
Now, the pressure of fiscal realities has created an uncertain future for the traditionally bipartisan bill. Already, the wheat and sugar lobbies are hard at work to protect their subsidies. The Republican point man on the farm bill, Rep. Frank Lucas (Okla.), dismissed the House-passed budget in a statement as merely a “suggestion” because it would force him to recognize those realities.
Despite being on defense for years, farm bill proponents have rarely ceded ground. Just take the 2008 farm bill, which authorized a record $288 billion in spending and increased payments during a time of record profits. Republicans — 100 in the House and 34 in the Senate — joined their Democratic colleagues to override President George W. Bush’s veto. If not for an overlooked $37 billion tax increase in the bill, more Republicans would have joined.
While the farm bill’s historical bipartisan appeal seems daunting, the ground is fertile for change. If lawmakers are serious about saving the American dream, they must continue these fights. It is not enough to repeal Obamacare and implement a fiscal plan in the vein of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) proposal, though both are essential. To be committed to limited government, Republican lawmakers must embrace their natural allies and vigorously oppose the upcoming farm bill.
A reversal on earmarks will undermine a multiyear rebranding effort by the Republican Party, and more importantly, seal the fate of America’s decline.
Michael A. Needham is CEO of Heritage Action for America. Tim Chapman is the organization’s chief operating officer.