WSJ Editorial

GOP Wake-Up Call

House Republicans are meeting today in Philadelphia for their annual retreat, and the news is that the leadership is facing a revolt from conservatives over runaway spending. Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay would do well to listen lest they start losing votes, not to mention credibility with voters.

Elected as the party of limited government 10 years ago, the Republican imperium is starting to show signs of ideological dry rot. Creative gerrymandering, especially in Texas, has made it likely the GOP will keep control of the House for the rest of this decade. But the paradox of this political ascendancy is that it has encouraged too many Members to trade in the principles that propelled them to power for pork-barrel spending and poll-driven incumbent protection.

The most egregious example of this spend-and-elect strategy was last year's $400 billion (or, as leaked yesterday, $540 billion) Medicare prescription drug plan that began as reform but ended as a huge entitlement expansion. In recent years we've also witnessed a $190 billion farm bill, enormous new education and transportation spending, and most recently an $820 billion "omnibus" spending bill that ladles out lard to every district in the nation. Republicans took a rare whack at spending in 1995, but ever since they have been hard to distinguish from Democrats.

Word is that this fact is finally being noticed back home, and that more than a few Members heard complaints from constituents over the recent holiday break. So while Messrs. Hastert and DeLay may have thought to use this retreat to plot to pass their $72 billion energy bonanza, a group of fiscal conservatives, including California veteran Christopher Cox, has arrived to demand that the party return to its roots and start slowing the growth of government.

Mr. Cox is clearly looking for something more than hollow promises to "do better." So he's resurrecting the idea of a Constitutional amendment, modeled on California's during the 1980s, that would limit spending to inflation and population growth. Such limits have done wonders for states like Colorado, which weathered the recent economic downturn without a huge budget "crisis." A federal version of such an amendment probably won't work given the needs of national security, but give Mr. Cox credit for thinking big.

He might have better luck with a plan for legislation to put real teeth into the budget process. Congress and the President would be required to decide overall budget levels early in the budget year, and they would be binding in a way they aren't today. If Members can't agree by the deadline, an automatic continuing resolution would keep the government running at previous levels. Congress could only go over the spending limits with a two-thirds supermajority, and the President could make line-item reductions.

These are bold ideas, and reminiscent of the vision that resonated so strongly with voters back in 1994 and the Contract With America. But the fiscal stalwarts are also considering tactical political moves to stop the spending binge. Some are considering forming a "suicide squad" that would block or vote against their own party if any more huge spending bills arrive. Others have suggested that it's time for term limits for seats on the Appropriations Committee, which is the soul of the spending machine.

In short, the GOP leadership is getting a trumpet blast from within; the question is whether the leadership will listen. One consequence of a party becoming the majority is that it attracts a new breed of candidate. The crafters of the 1994 platform were a political minority that had nothing to lose. Many of those Members have retired or moved on, only to be replaced by career politicians -- former state senators, lieutenant governors -- attracted to the bigger stage of Washington.

While these folks bring experience, they also bring an aversion to political risk and avoid controversial votes or reform. That helps explain why House Republicans have shown the most opposition to personal Social Security accounts, even as they push for a gas-tax increase to finance more highway projects. But if voters want highways, they can elect Democrats. The danger for Republicans is that voters will start to see them the same way they did the Jim Wright Democrats of the 1980s -- concerned only with keeping power for power's sake.

What would certainly help is a President who chose to lead. The Bush Administration seems to think that voters care more about tax cuts than they do spending. This is true enough when times are good. But spending represents a claim on taxes, and Republicans will end up having to raise them down the road if they don't slow the growth of spending now.

Which is why Mr. Cox is again asking President Bush to join him and GOP backbenchers in a veto strategy to control spending, if that's what it takes. The Californian plans to gather the signatures of at least one-third of House Members who'll promise to sustain any spending veto the President sends their way. Go for it, Mr. Cox.


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