Retro-Book Review: The Republican Revolution 10 Years Later

(Since the current government shutdown is drawing comparisons to the Clinton-Gingrich showdown in 1995-96, I thought I’d post this book review from my old blog, dated 10/18/08, on the accomplishments and failures of the Gingrich-led Republican takeover of Congress.)

Did the Republican takeover of Congress start a revolution to scale back government? That was their promise in the Contract With America, to end “government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public’s money.”

Oops.

To see just how badly the GOP failed in its mission, I recommend the Cato Institute’s book The Republican Revolution 10 Years Later: Smaller Government or Business as Usual? While the book doesn’t touch upon the events of President Bush’s second term, there’s plenty enough in this book to show how the Republicans became a big-government party. It should be noted that the focus of the book is the GOP Congress, and not President Bush, but the book demonstrates clearly that government growth exploded once the Republicans took over the legislative and executive branch. Also of note, while there is a chapter on foreign policy and a chapter on crime, this book isn’t recommended if you’re looking for critiques of Republican policy on the Iraq war or civil liberties. The primary focus is on various fiscal policies.

The book has 16 chapters, discussed below:

*Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich reflects on what led up to the victory in the 1994 mid-term elections, and declares that the Republicans DID change Washington because welfare was reformed, a tax cut was passed in 1997, and spending was cut one whole year. Ooookay then.

*Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey also gives his thoughts on the “revolution.” Armey says Congress made some “remarkable strides” early on but acknowledges, unlike Gingrich, the GOP lost its way. Armey blames this on politics, institutional biases, and the erosion of Republicans going along with the party’s leadership. While I agree that politics and institutional biases definitely favor government growth, to claim that the GOP’s leadership is fighting for limited government is as far off base as anything I’ve read in this book. How are we supposed to believe that when a top member of the House leadership once declared “victory” over wasteful budgets when the budget was running, at that time, $331 billion deficit?? How are we supposed to believe the GOP’s leadership in the House is fighting for smaller government when that same leadership supports the biggest government intervention in the economy we’ve seen in a generation?? Not to mention, what does it say about conservatism when the leading think tank for the movement endorses the same reckless intervention?

*Cato Institute president Ed Crane discusses why he feels the “revolution” was short-term, and points to Jack Kemp, a conservative supply-sider instrumental in passage of the Reagan tax cuts, to demonstrate just how little the GOP really cares about scaling back government, quoting Kemp himself: “I’m not interested in cutting spending. I’m interested in growth.”

*John Samples looks at the congressional reforms the GOP promised in the Contract, namely smaller government and term limits. He points that spending as a percent of GDP did go down considerably at first, only to start going right back up once Bush came into power. As for term limits, the momentum for that disappeared once the GOP became entrenched in their positions.

*Chris Edwards looks at Republican tax policy. The GOP has made strides in cutting taxes, but the tax code is still in need of serious reform. Unfortunately, recent events may undermine what the GOP did accomplish, and quite frankly the GOP shares a large part of the blame.

*Stephen Moore takes a detailed look at government spending, and this is where the GOP has failed miserably. While real nondefense discretionary spending did go down 3.1% during the 104th Congress, spending has exploded ever since. Most egregious is during Bush’s first term, nondefense discretionary spending went up 34%, faster than it did under President Lyndon Johnson!!

*Dan Griswold examines trade policy, concluding the GOP made modest accomplishments in expanding trade.

*Michael Tanner examines Social Security reform, which didn’t occur during the GOP’s rule, but opinions started gradually shifting in favor of partial privatization. I wonder how much that still holds true now??

*Ron Haskins looks at welfare reform, calling it the Republican Party’s biggest accomplishment, and provides some statistics to back that up.

*Michael Cannon tackles health care, another black-eye for the Republicans. While we did see health savings accounts enacted, it came at a gigantic cost, as the GOP enacted the largest entitlement expansion since the creation of Medicare with the prescription-drug benefit. It’s estimated this will cost taxpayers $600 billion over 10 years. Health care in general has become more socialized under Republican rule, as Cannon points that in 1995 patients directly paid only 12% of the costs for physician/clinical services. After 10 years, that number dropped to 10%. And yet we’re paying even more out of our pocket than ever before, demonstrating the perverse effects of socialized health care.

*David Salisbury highlights how disappointing the GOP has been on education, as they’ve adopted the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” strategy. Spending for the Department of Education went from $32.3 billion in FY1995 to $66.4 billion in FY2005. The centerpiece of GOP education policy is the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandates national standards on schools, something the GOP used to vehemently oppose.

*Adam Thierer looks at telecommunications and technology policy, calling it a “nonrevolution.”

*Clyde Wayne Crews Jr. looks at the regulatory policies of the GOP, concluding the Republicans are just as receptive to regulation as the Democrats, and pointing to many examples.

*Jerry Taylor examines the GOP’s environmental policy, concluding very little has changed with regards to regulations.

*Timothy Lynch highlights how the GOP failed to restore a federalist approach to criminal justice, despite a landmark Supreme Court decision that provided the momentum to do so.

*Chris Preble looks at how the GOP is still clinging to a Cold War model to national security, which is no longer relevant in today’s world.

There were high hopes for believers of limited government when Republicans took Congress in 1995. Unfortunately, serious efforts to scale back government were dismissed, and once Bush came into the White House, Republicans embraced big government with open arms. That is not leadership, it is not change, and it certainly isn’t a revolution. It’s an absolute disgrace.

This book provides a great public service in documenting the GOP’s betrayal of their supposed small-government principles. I highly recommend picking this up.

(For anyone who thinks the current fight between President Obama and the Republicans will end with meaningful spending reform: look at the history. Did the GOP bring about meaningful reform when they previously held the reins of power? This is why I don’t expect the current showdown to end well for taxpayers. I hope I’m wrong.)

**UPDATE 10/9/13: A lot of the fear about this shutdown is in regards to the debt ceiling, and the threat of a “default.” This article throws some cold water on the default hysterics. My statement about “not ending well for taxpayers” is my belief that all this acrimony will not produce any changes to Obamacare or the unsustainable path we’re on with entitlement programs.

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