Reformers vs. the Old Guard

Will fiscal conservatives retake the GOP? Four key members to watch in Congress.


"Since November 7, we really have three groups of Republicans," says Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). "We have the born again, who are fiscally conservative and remember what it means to be a Republican. We have the unmoved, those who've got gavels and positions they like and slots they're happy with. Then we have the tired. They're tired of trying to move the unmoved."

Kingston considers himself one of the born again. He also considers himself outnumbered. He has watched morosely as his increasingly statist party resisted reform since losing control of Congress in 2006.

Many libertarians and pro-market conservatives had hoped the election would jolt the GOP and give it a chance to rebuild-just as Newt Gingrich and his allies rebuilt the party after it lost the presidency in 1992, girding it to take over the House of Representatives for the first time in four decades. "I think what brought them down was a tin-earedness to what the public was looking for," says Erick Erickson, the managing editor of RedState.com. After the election, Erickson's blockbuster blog and its Republican readers campaigned for the party to shake up its leadership and adopt a new policy path: to "control spending, restrain the growth of government, and be good public stewards."

Instead the party re-elected its frustrating leaders. In the Senate, big-spending Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott was given the powerful whip job, four years after his praise of Strom Thurmond's segregationist presidential campaign had apparently killed his career. Early in 2007, House Republicans kicked Arizona's libertarian-leaning congressman Jeff Flake off the powerful Judiciary Committee after he criticized the party's drift on CBS.

Washington's Republicans are divided between a minority that wants to reform the party and a majority that doesn't think the GOP's defeat had anything to do with its addiction to spending. If you want to see which faction takes the lead, here are four legislators to keep an eye on, at least until 2008: two reformers and two from the old guard, two in the House and two in the Senate.

Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.)
After Election Day but before the new Congress took office, the leaders of the lame-duck House and Senate planned to quietly pass the bills left on the docket and slither back to their districts. Then DeMint and a fellow freshman senator, Oklahoma's Tom Coburn, blocked the year's remaining spending bills and successfully kept spending at its previous levels until the new Congress was sworn in.

DeMint is at his best frustrating both parties' bad ideas about fiscal, regulatory, and entitlement issues. In 2005, when the president's campaign for Social Security privatization went on its long, slow journey into the reef, the party winced and waited for the debate to end. DeMint introduced legislation to put Social Security taxes into hypothetical GROW (Growing Real Ownership for Workers) accounts, preventing the money from being spent on other programs and creating the potential for total privatization. He even got a vote on the idea in March 2006, though only 45 fellow Republicans supported it.

Because senators have more autonomy than their counterparts in the House, DeMint has been able to challenge Democratic leaders on reforming earmarks, the legislative add-ons that members of Congress use to designate revenue for pet projects in their states and districts. DeMint actually beat Majority Leader Harry Reid in a January vote by pushing for the House Democrats' version of the earmark reform bill over the weaker Senate version, which excluded most earmarks from disclosure rules.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas)
"A couple of years ago Bo Derek was coming up here, campaigning for the bill to ban horse slaughter," remembers Jack Kingston. "Here's a woman who deserved the title of 10 in her day; now she's at least a 9.7. Jeb looked this beautiful woman in the eye and said, 'Listen, I understand where you're coming from, but this is a free country. An animal is property, and its owner has the right to do what he wants with that property. Just because you don't like it doesn't mean we should ban it.'"

Hensarling, the newly elected chairman of the anti-tax, anti-spending Republican Study Committee, is a man obsessed with the budget. In the waning days of the Republican majority, Hensarling supported "alternative" budgets that were smaller than the GOP's own, including one with $103 billion in highway spending cuts, $630 billion in tax cuts, and a phase-out of Medicaid.

"When he was in the majority he was willing to vote against the rules, which is the absolute defiance of GOP leadership," says Redstate.com's Erickson. "If you think they're willing to spend that much money, taking that kind of a stand against them is something you can only do if you're willing to be not liked."

In his first term, Hensarling co-sponsored the Family Budget Protection Act, which would have mandated caps on both mandatory and discretionary federal spending. It included the creation of an anti-spending, anti-waste commission that would have proposed budget cuts for Congress to approve or reject in a single vote.

As leader of the party's small-government caucus, Hensarling has been tasked to, as his allies say, "recover the Republican Party brand." That mission is hampered by two pols from the "unmoved" wing of the party.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas)
Next to the re-election of House leaders John Boehner and Roy Blunt and the comeback of Trent Lott, no maneuver disheartened fiscal conservatives as much as the elevation of Texas' senior senator to the Republican Policy Committee, which sets the party's congressional agenda. Hutchison is known for her hardball campaign skills but not for her policy smarts.

"I know a lot of people on the Hill who said it would be disastrous," says Brandon Arnold, government affairs director at the Cato Institute. "She was following Sen. John Kyl [of Arizona], who had hired smart people from think tanks, turned the RPC into a reliable resource, turned out good stuff. People were saying, 'This will come to an end.'"

In power, Hutchison hasn't shown interest in using the committee as a fulcrum to move the party toward spending, tax, and government cuts. While other Republicans wanted to fight a minimum wage increase this year, for example, she suggested passing it with some business tax cuts to sweeten the deal.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.)
The highlight of the former chairman's tenure at the Appropriations Committee was his campaign for the job. In 2004 Lewis traveled the country and emptied his coffers to support Republicans; he pledged that as chairman he would support small-government values.

Instead, he presided over the Appropriations Committee as Congress broke records for attaching earmarks to bills. As the 2006 elections approached and voters raged about congressional corruption, Lewis scuttled Republican earmark reforms that, among other things, would have revealed which members were larding up which bills. At the same time, contractors were working with Lewis' lobbyist friend Bill Lowery to make sure their projects were greenlighted. That attracted the attention of the FBI. Lewis' response to being investigated? He fired 60 investigators who had worked for the Appropriations Committee.

Unlike DeMint, Hensarling, and Hutchison, Lewis lost power when the new Congress was sworn in. But don't write him off as a has-been. He remains the highest-ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee; if the GOP retakes power in 2008, he will almost certainly snatch back the gavel. He also represents the Republican majority that re-elected the party's leadership. "He's not someone people look at and get confidence that the Republicans are going to limit spending or run the government in a fiscally responsible way," says David Keating of the pro-market Club for Growth.

Another way of putting it: Lewis and Hutchison are not people who make libertarians want to vote Republican. Whether the party rediscovers the fiscally conservative side of its soul depends on whether it is politicians like them, or like DeMint and Hensarling, who take the lead.

David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.