Commentary: Conservatives must learn to cut their own pork
WASHINGTON -- The storm-tossed and rudderless Republican Party should particularly ponder the vote last week in Dover, Pa., where all eight members of the school board seeking re-election were defeated. This expressed the community's wholesome exasperation with the board's campaign to insinuate religion, in the guise of "intelligent design" theory, into high school biology classes, beginning with a required proclamation that evolution "is not a fact."
But it is. And President Bush's straddle on that subject -- "both sides" should be taught -- although intended to be anodyne, probably was inflammatory, emboldening social conservatives. Dover's insurrection occurred as Kansas' Board of Education, which is controlled by the kind of conservatives who make conservatism repulsive to temperate people, voted 6-4 to redefine science. The board, opening the way for teaching the supernatural, deleted from the definition of science these words: "a search for natural explanations of observable phenomena."
"It does me no injury," said Thomas Jefferson, "for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." But it is injurious, and unneighborly, when zealots try to compel public education to infuse theism into scientific education. The conservative coalition, which is coming unglued for many reasons, will rapidly disintegrate if limited-government conservatives become convinced that social conservatives are unwilling to concentrate their character-building and soul-saving energies on the private institutions that mediate between individuals and government, and instead try to conscript government into sectarian crusades.
But, then, the limited-government impulse is a spent force in a Republican Party that cannot muster congressional majorities to cut the growth of Medicaid from 7.3 percent to 7 percent next year. That "cut" was too draconian for some Republican "moderates." But, then, most
Conservatives have won seven of 10 presidential elections, yet government waxes, with per household federal spending more than $22,000 per year, the highest in inflation-adjusted terms since World War II. Federal spending -- including a 100 percent increase in education spending since 2001 -- has grown twice as fast under President Bush as under President Clinton, 65 percent of it unrelated to national security.
In 1991, the 546 pork projects in the 13 appropriation bills cost $3.1 billion.
Washington subsidizes the cost of water to encourage farmers to produce surpluses that trigger a gusher of government spending to support prices. It is almost comforting that $2 billion is spent each year paying farmers not to produce.
Brian Riedl of The Heritage Foundation reports that Congress responded to the Korean War by setting priorities, cutting one-fourth of all nonwar spending in one year. Recently the House failed to approve an unusually ambitious effort to cut government growth. This is today's ambitiousness: attempting -- probably unsuccessfully -- to cut government growth by $54 billion over five years.
That is $10.8 billion a year from five budgets projected to total $12.5 trillion, of which $54 billion is four-hundredths of 1 percent. War is hell but, on the home front, it is indistinguishable from peace, except that the government is more undisciplined than ever.
Gerard Alexander of the University of Virginia wonders whether conservatives' cohesion is perishing because it was a product of the period when conservatives were insurgents against dominant liberals. About limited-government conservatism, he says:
"Perhaps conservatives were naive to expect any party, ever, to resist rent-seeking temptations when in power. Just as there always was something fatally unserious about socialism -- its flawed understanding of human nature -- is it possible that there has also been something profoundly unserious about the limited-government agenda? Should we now be prepared for the national electoral wing of the conservative movement -- the House and Senate caucuses and executive branch officials -- to identify with legislation like the pork-laden energy and transportation bills, in the same way that liberals came to ground their identities in programs like Social Security?"
Perhaps. But if so, limited-government conservatives will disassociate from a Republican Party more congenial to overreaching social conservatives. Then those Republican congressional caucuses will be smaller, and Republican control of the executive branch will be rarer.
George Will's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.