Rep. Roy Blunt on the GOP's Future

The following speech was delivered by Rep. Roy Blunt (R.-Mo.) to the Heritage Foundation on November 9, a day after announcing his run for House minority whip.

They say that success has a thousand fathers and that failure is an orphan, but just this week we’ve seen lots of people working to analyze what happened on Tuesday and who should take responsibility. According to some, it is a repudiation of conservatism, others argue that it is the Foley factor, others a referendum on the war in Iraq, others a rebuke to one-party rule, and still others a punishment by the faithful for the failure of conservatives to govern by their principles.

In reality, there is no single explanation for the loss of our majorities.  Different candidates lost for different reasons, yet as conservatives we should take this opportunity to reflect on how we have governed, honestly assess our shortcomings, and propose the best way to move forward. As conservatives, it is our duty to make this assessment not because we want to place blame, but because we know that in politics, just as there are no permanent victories, there are no permanent defeats. 1964, 1976, and 1992 required a time for regrouping, reorganizing, and rededication for conservatives. 2006 could be just as important and just as positive a time for us to do that.

An honest assessment of the last few years of Republican governance in Washington reveals three distinct shortcomings. First, as the party in charge for most of the last six years, we have often become the defenders rather than the challengers of business as usual. Second, we have failed to create a culture of less but better government and too often have given in to the culture of spending so pervasive in Washington. Finally, we have allowed our efforts to defend traditional values to be defined as little more than a politically driven effort to appease ‘family groups.’ These disappointments, combined with a seemingly constant stream of ethics issues afflicting a few Members of Congress, caused some in our movement to lose faith. The good news is that even with these shortcomings, low presidential approval numbers, and uncertainty about Iraq, our candidates saw, even with all those things happening, their ideas taking hold in the final days of their campaigns.  A shift of 78,000 votes in the entire country would have changed the outcome.  Our ideas didn’t get beat; in fact, we did.

Again, we don’t want to become the defenders of business as usual. We want to continue to focus on less but better government, government that does what the federal government is supposed to do and does it well. We want to put values above politics.

Before turning to the three problems I have identified, let me speak for a moment about the ethical challenges we have confronted. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats, neither liberals nor conservatives, is immune from having bad actors in their midst. In fact, there are a few individuals in all walks of life from all parts of the political spectrum who will engage in unethical, immoral, and even illegal behavior. The test of any organization or political movement is how it responds when confronted with these individuals. Lawmakers all too often respond by doing what we do best—thinking you can solve problems by passing new laws or creating new rules. No amount of law or rule making, however, will cause all people to behave well all the time.

Before 1994, when conservatives were out of power and were unable to make new laws or rules, we recognized this truth and confronted serious legal and ethical violations by declaring that those who were part of that had no place in our movement. I suggest that we need to recommit ourselves to that standard. For conservatives, holding onto or gaining political power should never come before our obligation to be worthy of people’s trust.  

The other failures I want to talk about today are not meant to discount the progress we have made, because it has been substantial. We have made tremendous gains with our tax policies, for example, reducing taxes on both income and investments and promoting economic growth. The economic numbers that Americans enjoy right now are significant.  One of the great things in the polling at the end of this last campaign was that Americans were really beginning to look at the economy and appreciate what these policies have done for that economy.  We have enacted multiple lawsuit abuse reform bills, curbing class action lawsuits and protecting some manufacturers from frivolous lawsuits. And we have begun the tremendous task of securing our borders. In fact, the strong economy and our efforts to defend the country are both proof of the difference between us and them.

My comments are merely an acknowledgment that our performance has fallen short of our own expectations. It is not entirely surprising that we would fall short.  I used to say I was from a part of Missouri where we believe the only certain roles for the federal government were to defend the country and deliver the mail, and that everything else is up for debate.  The truth is we’re not quite as committed to that mail delivery thing as we used to be.  Many conservatives share my belief that almost every problem is solved best closest to home. That healthy skepticism about government makes incremental change hard to accept.  We want to see change, and we want to see it immediately.

When conservatives first took control of the House in 1994 we had spent 40 years in the political wilderness witnessing the institutionalization of the New Deal, the Great Society, and the establishment of an all-intrusive federal government — all done with Democratic majorities of 60, 70, and at one point 155! In 1995, conservatives were armed and ready to challenge the existing government and all the proposals for expansion advocated by the Clinton Administration.  In the first 100 days, conservatives passed a rescissions bill, eliminating dozens of government programs. They then passed welfare reform and Freedom to Farm, and fought through a government shutdown with President Clinton over further entitlement reforms.
But as we conservatives have run more and more of the government, somehow we went from being the challengers of the status quo to being content with nipping around the edges of the status quo. Too often we stopped arguing about how to limit federal power and started trying to figure out how best to use federal power to achieve our purposes. With the No Child Left Behind Act, for example, we countenanced an unprecedented expansion of the federal government into local school administration.   I voted for this bill hoping that it would encourage the states to be laboratories for change, violating my basic belief that elementary and secondary education should be the responsibility of moms and dads and local school districts.  
As I should have predicted, we shifted the focus to the wrong place. We always have to remember why we are here:

We came here to cut spending; instead we have too often allowed it to increase.

We came here to reform entitlements; instead too often we have expanded them.

We came here to shrink the federal government; instead too often we’ve enlarged it.

We came here to promote traditional American values; instead too often we have become accustomed to the values of Washington or the elite.

But our losses in the election will have a silver lining if we now rededicate ourselves to these principles that brought conservatives into politics. We want a smaller federal government—properly limited by the constitution. We want a federal government that does the work left to it well, instead of a government that expands its focus, doing everything less effectively and often getting in the way of better solutions coming from individuals, charities, or state and local governments.
We can’t start by defending our current level of spending.  We have to challenge every dollar spent on every program. We should begin with the assumption that the American people know how to spend their money better than the American government does; we should begin with the assumption that American families can spend their money on behalf of their families better than the government does. And that federal taxes should be levied only for those things that people cannot do better for themselves or for those things that can be done better at the state and local levels. If tax cuts generate so much growth that revenues go up, as they have significantly in the last two years, that shouldn’t automatically mean that the government gets to spend the extra money; it should be a reason to let taxpayers keep more of what they earned. We must be defenders of the taxpayer, rather than of the tax collector.

Defending the taxpayer can be hard for the party in power. The Washington culture pushes an ever-expanding government, not reform. When conservatives took the reins of power in 1995, we had a list of programs we were seeking to eliminate. In some instances we were successful:  the billion-dollar-plus National Helium Reserve, the $7 million Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, and Congress refused to fund 95 programs. But the working pressure is almost all on the side of more spending.  As the CATO Institute recently pointed out, the culture of spending became so pervasive that for every one witness testifying before Congress for the elimination of programs or for a reduction in spending, 145 witnesses testified in favor of bigger programs and increased spending.

We need a cultural change in Washington. We need to establish a culture of limited government to replace the big government culture of excess.  One reform I propose we adopt would require every plan to expand government to be accompanied by a proposal to eliminate or reduce an existing program of equal or greater size.  Let’s turn this argument around. If we’re going to talk about PAYGO, let’s talk about PAYGO for spending.  Let’s turn the activists for big government on each other, instead of letting them gang up on the taxpayer. Let those who advocate for new programs and spending become advocates for eliminating programs that don’t work or shouldn’t be the job of the federal government.

In a coffee shop in Southwest Missouri when I was first elected, the consensus of a group giving me advice was: Roy, when they talk about spending money in Washington, we always want you to ask two questions.  One, is this absolutely necessary for the federal government to do? And, if the answer is yes, then the second question is how in the world did we get along without it before?  Pretty good Southwest Missouri common sense, which ought to be applied more than it is.

Gaining control over federal spending will require more than just offsetting new spending; it will require reforms to the massive entitlement programs that are currently on auto-pilot.

Conservatives took a step towards such reform last year when we passed the Deficit Reduction Act, achieving $40 billion in savings across 13 major areas of federal spending from farm programs to student loans to Medicare.

While the reforms contained in the Deficit Reduction Act were not dramatic, they were perhaps the hardest fought savings achieved by our majority in 12 years.

To be more effective advocates for change, we need to learn from our truly transformational success in reforming welfare in 1996. That conservative legislation not only reshaped a massive entitlement program, but also generated billions in savings to taxpayers.  In a very real sense, it saved lives and neighborhoods and has been one of the great successes of the last decade.

I believe one of our mistakes in pursuing entitlement reform has been our failure to follow the welfare reform model. In Welfare Reform, conservatives sought to tackle one whole program and reform it completely. The structure of the reforms had been laid out in advance by groups such as the Heritage Foundation, and the need for reform had been successfully conveyed to the public so people were ready for reform.

In the Deficit Reduction Act, by contrast, we took on dozens of programs and tweaked each a little. Unlike Welfare Reform, no groundwork was in place for these changes. The reforms were not visionary and transformational enough to enliven our base and excite the public, yet they were controversial enough to generate impassioned opposition from everywhere.  So everyone was against the reforms, no one was for them; we hadn’t done the kinds of things that made us successful with Welfare Reform.

We will have several opportunities in the near future to return to the Welfare Reform model.  The most important one may be under a provision of the Medicare Modernization Act that requires the president to submit reform plans to lower Medicare’s take of the general treasury, and Congress must give those plans expedited consideration. The trigger for these procedures will be tripped next year, paving the way for necessary action in 2008.  To move forward successfully, we must begin working together, and with the President, right now to develop our desired changes in direction, convince the public on the need for reform, and then convince them our reforms are right for them and right for the future.  

As conservatives we have to summon the will not just to be critical of what is, but to do the hard work of proposing what can be, and nowhere is that more true than in the area of limiting federal spending.
I would be remiss if I didn’t say a word or two about earmarks. We have probably spent more time talking about what to do about earmarks over the past year or so than we have virtually any other aspect of the federal budget. I know that the sheer number of earmarks — and a few well publicized earmarks in particular — has come to symbolize our inability to control spending. Yet it is also true that someone, either in Congress or in the depths of some agency, decides how every tax dollar is going to be spent; and we will achieve nothing if we merely transfer decision-making power from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other.

Voters have routinely proven that they do not consider the amount of bacon a Member brings home to their district to be the sole measure of success for an incumbent. We should remember that and seek to define success by our ability to reform government programs, not earmark these programs.
Just as fiscal responsibility and limited government have been at the core of the conservative movement, so has the defense of traditional values. I want to focus on that word defense for a moment, because that has rightly been the focus of many of the efforts of the pro-family movement.  We have watched for decades as liberal activists used the federal courts to undermine our values and to limit the ability of local communities to set their own standards or even place a copy of the Ten Commandments on the courthouse wall. We have watched as liberal activists used taxpayer money and government coercion to push their views on our families.  In every one of these instances, conservatives were defending against these onslaughts. We were fighting for the right of families and communities to set their own standards and not someone else’s standards imposed upon them by some distant court or bureaucracy.
We have allowed the so-called mainstream media to characterize our efforts to encourage families and traditional values as cynical ‘votes for our base’ or ‘votes due the family groups.’ In a hard September fight—just weeks ago – to eliminate internet gambling there was too much reporting and possibly too many comments made on Capitol Hill about what good politics this was, instead of what good policy it was. The point should never be how many votes the family groups were promised, but should always be another step in advancing issues that protect core American values.

In every one of these political debates in the future, we must always explain the principle we are for—and never allow the media to distort what we are doing or why we are doing it. There must be a principle involved; we must defend that principle, we must stay committed to those values.

We must also recognize that the erosion of traditional values is often done incrementally and can be countered incrementally.  One particular bill that received little attention this year, but which I believe has the power to create a more level playing field for local communities, is Congressman Hostettler’s proposal to deny the ACLU and similar groups the ability to collect damages and attorney’s fees in establishment clause cases.  Right now the fear of losing a multi-million dollar lawsuit to the ACLU means that a local school board or city council makes a financially driven decision.  Then the decision becomes not whether they’re right or wrong, but whether they can afford to take the chance. This legislation, passed by the House, would return the debate to the merits of Christmas carols, a manger scene, or a menorah, rather than whether a local government can afford to lose the case.  We should not allow the intimidation of local governments by these groups based on financial considerations.

Another bill Lamar Alexander and I have introduced would restrain the ability of federal courts to run state and local institutions indefinitely. Reversing these so-called consent decrees requires elected officials to do their job. As conservatives we need to set about identifying other similar opportunities where reversing bad policy and bad process can reinforce traditional values. And we must seize such opportunities, not because they appear on the list of votes for one group or another, but because they are the right thing to do. We can’t continue to let the media in any way suggest that a values agenda is about politics. A values agenda is an agenda about the right kind of society.

Tuesday’s results gave us a great opportunity to once again define and fight for big ideas. One of the geniuses of our political system is that no one party has a permanent claim to power, a fact that the voters can, and do, emphasize when they feel it’s necessary. This means any viable political movement, such as ours, can never afford to become stagnant or complacent. We must constantly refresh our ideas, assess our performance, and make corrections when necessary.

This is a great moment to do all three of those things.

For a generation Reagan conservatives have consistently demonstrated an ability to do just that.  Nowhere has this been more evident than in our response to the threats of Islamic totalitarianism and the fight with our terrorist enemies.

During the Cold War, it was conservatives who refused to buy into the argument that the best the United States could hope for was co-existence with the Soviet Union. When asked what his plan was for the Cold War, Ronald Reagan said, ‘We win. They lose.’ Not very complicated, but it worked.  Conservatives believed that a clear and strong public resolve, alliances that made sense for us and created problems for our enemy, and a commitment to develop the technology and expend the resources necessary to outlast our enemy would ultimately secure our victory.

And it did.

While the threats of Islamic totalitarianism at times require different tactics, we are approaching those challenges with the same resolve that allowed us to defeat communism. I am convinced that in this fight we will also prevail because the American people understand the need to win.

We must continue to lead the fight against Islamic totalitarianism and sustain the will to win the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the domestic front we have to develop a plan to govern that is based on our core principles of limited government and defense of American values.  Our plan must avoid the mistakes of the past several years. There must be a counterculture to the culture of spending. We must develop and promote reform of entitlement programs.  And we must respond directly, forthrightly, and confidently to the attacks on our traditional values.

I take each of these challenges very seriously.  Having talked to many of my colleagues, I know they do as well, for these challenges represent an opportunity to more clearly define who we are, not just as a movement but as a country.

I am confident that we will successfully move forward.  

Why am I so confident? I am so confident because the strength of the conservative movement lies in our faith in the American people and the fundamental, unchanging principles in the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution that have defined our government. We have had real setbacks before, but each pointed the way to greater success.  2007 and 2008 are opportunities once again for us to let the American people know what we stand for.

We say we want to cut spending, and we will.

 We say we want to reform the welfare state by empowering citizens to make their own decisions, and we will.
We say we want to defend traditional American values, and we will.

We say we want to confront and defeat totalitarians who threaten our freedom, and we will.

Our job is not to defend business as usual, not to defend everything the government does, but to challenge it and see that it is done better.

Our job is to insist on less and better government.

Demanding that the federal government do its job (not everyone else’s) and do it as well as it can possibly be done.

Our job is to put our values above political expediency.

If we do these things—we will quickly see those ideas embraced by an overwhelming majority of Americans; my party will be the majority party, and our country will see another century become the American Century.