Darwinian Politics

Survival instincts of "citizen legislators"


Commenting on the Republican minimum-wage rout, House Majority Leader Dick Armey quoted "The Bug," the Dire Straits song made popular by Mary Chapin Carpenter: "'Sometimes you're the windshield. Sometimes you're the bug,'" he said. "We've been the bug the past few days."

In a roundabout way, Armey was admitting that he and other House opponents of the wage hike were rolled: by Speaker Newt Gingrich, who argued that he would not stand in the way of a policy supported by 80 percent of the public; by nine Republican committee chairmen who voted for the hike; and, most surprisingly, by a disturbing number of the supposedly radical freshmen and sophomores, who provided 46 of the 93 Republican votes in favor of a higher minimum wage.

Beltway conventional wisdom has portrayed these short-timers as rabid anti-statists. The freshmen and sophomores have also been praised by the advocates of congressional term limits, who claim that such "citizen legislators" would set aside parochial interests or concerns about their own re-election campaigns and vote against the expansion of the regulatory state. The minimum-wage vote certainly casts further doubt on the Republicans' willingness to restrain federal power. But it also suggests that a legislator's tenure in office may have little bearing on that person's attitudes about the size and scope of government.

If House Republicans were serious about reducing the intrusiveness of the federal government, voting against a minimum-wage hike should have been a no-brainer. Any minimum wage impedes the freedom of employers and employees to enter contracts without the government's interference. When 40 percent of House Republicans vote to expand government power, how can the party credibly argue that electing more GOP legislators will roll back the regulatory state?

Gingrich's aversion to taking political risks will remain a headache for Armey and the limited-government wing of the GOP no matter how the party does this fall. In the near term, though, the capitulation of the freshmen appears harder to explain.

Elsewhere in this issue, Cato Institute President Ed Crane makes a common argument when he says, "Americans clearly desire less government–much less. The single strongest piece of evidence for that proposition is that 80 percent of them support term limits….The common sense of a citizen legislature would give us Medical Savings Accounts, privatized Social Security, a repeal of the income tax, and much more."

We can't be sure how legislators would behave under term limits, but recent votes cast doubt on that optimistic scenario. Two of the principal sponsors of term-limits legislation, freshman Van Hilleary (R-Tenn.) and sophomore Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) voted for the minimum-wage hike. And freshman Dick Chrysler of Michigan, who has led the move to abolish the Department of Commerce, also voted to raise the minimum. I asked a Chrysler staffer why an opponent of industrial policy wants the government to set wage rates. The aide told me that after the House passed a few minor protections for teenagers, people who work for tips, and "computer professionals," Chrysler felt comfortable voting for the wage hike. Talk about the letting the government pick winners and losers!

Perhaps voters don't want government to be smaller as much as they want it to be responsive–to give average voters what they want, which may very well be new populist regulations. The television V-chip, content controls on the Internet, and new "employment verification" systems designed to stop the hiring of illegal immigrants are three wildly popular, "common sense" regulations passed by this Congress. They expand federal power at the expense of liberty and privacy, and the lion's share of first-and second-termers rushed to vote for each of them.

Even some of the fiercest freshmen reformers have shown they see nothing wrong with bashing Beltway elites, demanding fiscal responsibility, and delivering pork to their constituents. Buchananite Zack Wamp (R-Tenn.) and Perotista Linda Smith (R-Wash.) held the House Budget Committee hostage when it tried to privatize federal facilities in their districts–the Oak Ridge Laboratory and the Bonneville Power Administration, respectively. Preserving high-paying, local engineering jobs and subsidized electric power is much more popular than defending "cheap foreign labor" or "corrupt lobbyists"–especially when the beneficiaries of an open, dynamic economic system are harder to identify than, say, your neighbor Joe who works at Oak Ridge.

The freshman/sophomore surrender may be easier to understand if you consider that these legislators are neophytes who may be spooked by their first tough re-election campaigns. They have never experienced vicious attacks focused at them by Beltway-based interest groups whose constituents demand tax subsidies or favorable treatment by regulators. In April the AFL-CIO announced it would double its political advertising budget and spend $35 million more than usual this election cycle to defeat congressional Republicans. The union's main targets: 75 House members, most of them freshmen.

By running scared, some of these "citizen legislators" have demonstrated that, unlike Cincinnatus, they would rather retain their political power than return to their plows. It seems that some folks really would prefer to be legislators rather than citizens.