Tiahrt Channels FDR in Spending Fight

Posted July 3, 2009 at 8:30am

By all accounts, Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, who for eight terms has represented a solidly red district that voted overwhelmingly for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential election. Just last month, the American Conservative Union named Tiahrt the most conservative member of the Kansas delegation for his 95 percent lifetime voting record.

Yet Tiahrt recently has found an unlikely ally in his quest to highlight what he sees as runaway federal spending: Franklin D. Roosevelt, the New Deal president who carries as much symbolic importance for Democrats as Ronald Reagan does for Republicans.

Week after week, Tiahrt has lectured Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee on fiscal responsibility using FDR’s words to support a series of amendments that in effect would cancel the $787 billion economic recovery package, while redirecting unspent stimulus dollars to pay for fiscal 2010 spending bills. It’s a futile quest, yet one that works nicely with the anti-stimulus message that is a centerpiece of his campaign to replace retiring Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).

In doing so, he’s also sparked a recurring debate on the economic policies of the Great Depression — a topic that has grown increasingly heated with the election of President Barack Obama and passage of the stimulus package. Conservatives — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — have questioned the effectiveness of the New Deal on unemployment during the 1930s, arguing instead that it was World War II that lifted the country out of the Depression. Liberals say that view smacks of revisionism.

In a routine that has become familiar to regular attendees of Appropriations markups, Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the unabashed liberal who chairs the panel, sarcastically calls Tiahrt’s proposals the “Herbert Hoover Memorial amendments— — a reference to the Republican president’s reluctance to intervene in markets during the 1929 financial crisis.

“Is this the Hoover Dam or the Damn Hoover amendment?— Obey gibed his GOP colleague during a recent committee debate.

But Tiahrt counters that his amendments are more aligned with FDR, who as a presidential candidate in 1932 chastised Hoover for “reckless and extravagant spending— and expanding government. At one point, Tiahrt went so far as to distribute a page from the 1932 Democratic platform that calls for an “immediate and drastic— reduction of government spending by 25 percent.

Obey had a ready rejoinder. “I would rather take something out of the platform of 2009 rather than 1932,— he said.

In an interview, Tiahrt acknowledged the irony of an avowed conservative invoking the author of the New Deal to argue for repealing a stimulus this is considered by many to be its modern counterpart. But he says FDR’s words offer a salient lesson on spending for today, even if he didn’t follow through on them.

“We’re supposed to learn from history, not continue the mistakes of the past,— he said.

Tiahrt, who grew up on a farm financed through a New Deal agency by his Democratic grandparents, says FDR’s failure to live up to his fiscal promises as a candidate in 1932 mirrors the frustration that led him to switch his own party affiliation to Republican in 1990.

“I sat down and read the platforms and thought about it and I realized that the Democratic Party wasn’t the same party my grandfather told me about,— he said. “They were more interested in these individual groups than they were about the common guy who was trying to work to make a living and start a business to provide for his family.—

Tiahrt’s stimulus tactics have begun to get under the skin of Democrats.

At one recent markup, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) complained that while Tiahrt’s FDR quotes are correct, they ignore what he did after he was elected president.

“In fact, he changed all of that policy when he got into office and was able as a result to restore the economy. So when you talk about 1932, the operable lesson to history was 1933, when he disavowed those statements,— Moran said.

William Leuchtenburg, a leading FDR historian who has also written about Hoover, agrees, noting that Roosevelt as a candidate also promised government action to help the jobless. “What the Congressman is quoting is an aberration that in no way reflects what Roosevelt did as president,— he said of Tiahrt.

Despite his affinity for quoting FDR, the moral is clear for Tiahrt, who says he will continue to press to repeal the stimulus.

“Both Herbert Hoover and FDR tried to borrow money to start government programs in attempts to get the economy to recover, and we know from history that from Hoover on through FDR it simply did not work,— he said. “This idea that you’ve got a problem, we’ve got a program for it,’ doesn’t strengthen your economy. History tells us that and I’m just trying to refresh the memories of the Democrat Party and I think it’s starting to sink in.—