Spotlight: Spending Slasher


It was early 1972 when Lewis Uhler, assistant secretary of the California State Human Relations Board, prepared and circulated to the Reagan administration a memorandum on a new approach to the problem of excessive government spending. The idea of an over-all limit on the aggregate share of people's earnings available to government was not original with him, but it seems to be the first time the approach was set into motion. The idea soon led to his appointment as chairman of the governor's tax-reduction task force, a tax-supported committee dedicated to finding ways to reduce the size of the government budget.

Uhler already had experience in paring government from a previous stint as state director of the Office of Economic Opportunity. His attempts to keep the poverty industry lawyers in line earned him the reputation of Ronald Reagan's anti-poverty "hatchet man." Since then, he has also earned the reputation of "father of modern spending limits."

His early activities led to the original California spending limitation measure, Proposition 1, which was defeated in November 1973. Uhler returned to his law practice and major source of income, land development, but did not desist in his efforts to limit government spending. He maintained contacts with "the intellectual horsepower" that he had worked with while chairman of the tax-reduction task force. From the inception of the effort, Milton Friedman has played an active part in the effort to impose a constitutionally mandated federal spending limit.

In 1975, Uhler, with William F. Rickenbacker, son of the famous flyer Eddie Rickenbacker, founded the National Tax-Limitation Committee. Other members included Arthur Godfrey and Clare Booth Luce. Initial funding was supplied by the committee members, and direct mailing took hold and yielded dramatic results shortly thereafter. According to Uhler, the support for NTLC has come mostly from small businesses and individuals, with only slight corporate support coming later in the game. Almost 600,000 subscriber contributors are involved today.

From the beginning, NTLC's stated and ultimate objective has been to bring about a limit on federal spending and to effect similar tax and spending limitations at the state and local level as a part of the constitutional fabric. "The bottom line," says Uhler, "is that the only way that we can do this thing properly is by way of changing the constitution—changing the rules by which those we elect must play the game." The first two 1980 presidential candidates to endorse the NTLC constitutional amendment were Ronald Reagan and George Bush, when they were still battling each other for the Republican nomination.

The NTLC amendment differs from a balanced-budget proposal in that it actually would limit federal spending to a percentage of the gross national product (GNP). While a balanced-budget amendment alone would stop the federal government from deficit spending, it would not stop the government from raising both taxes and spending.

The NTLC ceiling on spending would be the percentage of GNP spent in the previous year. Therefore, if a fiscally conservative administration reduced spending, all following administrations would be forced to do likewise. But the key feature of the NTLC amendment is a penalty for inflation. For each percentage point of inflation over three percent, the spending limit would be reduced by one quarter percent, actually reducing federal spending as a percentage of GNP. If the program had been followed for the last 10 years, says Uhler, the government would have a substantial surplus instead of a mounting deficit.

The proposed amendment was introduced in the Senate and House in 1979, sponsored by a Democrat and a Republican in both. The NTLC has taken a nonpartisan approach and has especially tried to avoid the appearance of a "conservative clique." Uhler himself is a libertarian. His personal philosophy is that "freedom works if we'll only let it." He does not like the conservative label because it can apply to those who want to conserve things the way they are, and he believes that the only hope lies in constitutionally limiting the lawmakers. He says of NTLC, "The hallmark of the tax-limitation effort is to allow those who are the productive members of society to enjoy the maximum fruits of their labor. In the course of utilizing what they have produced in their own self-interest, they produce the best society for everybody."

Although a libertarian, Uhler does not see the Libertarian Party as the mechanism of political change. "The nature of politics is compromise. The retention of a pure essence is difficult when you try to take a philosophy and forge it into a political movement. I would doubt that the Libertarian Party would ever amount to much as a political force, but as a philosophical and moral force, as a conscience for freedom, it's got a lot to say." Uhler believes that "it can be the counterpoint to what the Socialist Party has done over the last 50 years or more. The Libertarian Party can help purify and restore sanity, and if the policies and programs or, more precisely, the lack thereof encouraged by libertarianism can be adopted by the major political parties, I think the Libertarian Party will have succeeded nicely."

Right now, Uhler has an opportunity to influence the political process by a different route. He will be part of the brain-trust advising the new president. Since November, he has been working with Reagan's staff, discussing ways to expedite passage of the NTLC amendment. Uhler hopes to see it come out of this session of Congress.

Forty-seven year old Uhler is characterized by friends and associates as hard-driving, intelligent, and honest, and "he doesn't try to make you feel he's something special when you sit down across from him." He has four sons, skis when he can, and uses his 16-foot, eleven-passenger white-water raft. He and his one-time roommate at Yale, M. Stanton Evans, helped form the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists and Yale's Independent Library, a freedom-oriented alternative information source. His law degree came from Boult Hall, at the University of California at Berkeley.

Uhler's type of work doesn't elicit many awards or honorary memberships, but he does have a plaque in his office that he seems to like. It was given to him by the staff of the Office of Economic Opportunity after he had taken on the "poverty law establishment" in the form of the California Rural Assistance Program. From the plaque hangs two brass balls. It reads: "Lewis K. Uhler. To a man born in the front bunkers of the national milieu, who has undergone shell fire and returned it in kind."

What more can you say?

Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.