An Interview With Thaddeus McCotter, Chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee About The GOP Fiscal Integrity Task Force

Late last week, I got together with Thaddeus McCotter, Chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee to talk about the new GOP Fiscal Integrity Task Force that has been announced in the House. I’m always happy to talk with McCotter because he’s one of the good guys in Congress — friendly to blogs and the grassroots, and a sharp thinker when it comes to conservative principles.

What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our discussion.

Earmarks are a big bone of contention even though, percentage wise, they’re a very small factor in the deficit. John McCain has said that he wants to eliminate earmarks. Do you anticipate that being something the GOP’s Fiscal Integrity Task Force will support?

The first thing we’re going to do is look at the definition of earmarks, because there are several floating around. I think McCain’s position is important, as is the work of members like Jeff Flake, Jeb Hensarling — to use this as a symbol of government overspending.

What will also have to be addressed is what takes the place of earmarks. As you’ll remember, the reason that earmarks took off in the Gingrich era was because bureaucrats were spending taxpayers’ money and bureaucrats and civil servants are unaccountable and unelected. That meant there was nothing that could be done about their bad decisions. So Gingrich, in trying to empower the electorate and the Congressional branch that actually appropriates the money, wanted to bring the accountability down so that if you don’t like what your member is doing, you actually have recourse. What broke down though, is the self-policing mechanism, I think.

So, from our point of view, what we want to do is define what earmarks are in a way that makes sense and can help address the problem. Then secondly, if earmarks are banished, how do you prevent the bureaucrats from spending them? So, we have to identify the solution properly, diagnose it, and then go treat it.

…Again, as you point out, the percentage of the spending isn’t as important as the symbolism of it. I am like you, hoping that McCain gets elected, as opposed to his two rivals on the Democratic side — because as we’ve seen from the Democratic Congress, they’ve not paid any attention to earmarks other than when we make a stink about it, then they give it lip service and hope it goes away….

…The public should be aware of what the new Democratic Majority wants to do with your money. I think it could be reduced down to one simple phrase: the Democrats take and waste strategy. …Because they seem to think that every dime government spends right now is so perfectly spent that they have to raise people’s taxes to do all this wonderful redistribution of wealth. We would argue as Republicans — something of a lost art for the last couple of years — that in fact the government does not appropriately spend every dime of your hard earned money that it takes and the first place they should look is in the waste, fraud, and abuse that’s going on in the unfortunately overexpansive promises and entitlements that the government has made….That’s the place to start. You don’t start by promising to spend money because everything is done properly; you start by looking at the reality that the government wastes a lot of your money and you should always (cut) that before you go looking for (more money).

I have never voted for a tax increase because I have yet to find a governmental entity that doesn’t, in one way, shape, or form, have a better way of dealing with your money and treating it in the fiduciary manner it’s supposed to….

Now, in your opinion — people have tried to do this many times before and failed — what’s the most realistic way for us to go about cutting entitlement spending?

Well, I think the way that they’ve done it is that they’ve tried to kick the ball down the field. You have to have a realistic assessment of what the global age is going to require and when you look at it, in the past, in the industrial age…there was kind of a deal struck. The corporations would pick up some of the future pensions and health care benefits of employees and the government would fill in the gaps to maintain social order and a social safety net. With globalization, what we’re finding is that companies tend to become more multi-national and virtual in their headquarters. The result is that the paradigm between splitting the pensions and health care benefits between the private sector and public sector is breaking down.

What we would argue as Republicans is that you start from the fundamental premise is how you empower Americans to take care of their own needs in the future so that they do not become governmental dependents. That’s a fundamental debate we’re having with the Democratic Party.

…So, we want to take the premise of “how do you empower people to control their own destiny” and apply it to entitlement programs that were set up under the entitlement programs of Lyndon Johnson…and Franklin Roosevelt, where they firmly believed they could do it with the government on a limited basis because the private entities would also be there as a safety net…that’s gone. So, we’re trying to look at it through an entirely new prism.

John McCain is advocating a “one-year pause in discretionary spending growth that should be used for a top-to-bottom review of the effectiveness of federal programs.” You think that’s something Republicans in the House should support?

I think it’s great, especially in the sense that the FIT task force is kind of getting a head start on that so that we will be able to come in with ideas to help the McCain Administration as they freeze spending and get it up and running.

…McCain’s right. Unless you figure out what’s going on, you’re going to see the Democrats continue to tempt people to give away their liberty and prosperity in return for government benefits and that has to stop. I think that the one year McCain freeze on discretionary spending can be very helpful to let Americans realize what the real choice is between parties. It’s either that their future will be moving towards individual liberty, empowerment, and prosperity or towards government dependency.

Another McCain proposal is that it should “require a 3/5 majority vote in Congress to raise taxes.” You think the GOP would support that overwhelmingly?

Absolutely. We’re reaching a very dangerous point. I think the Christian Science monitor reported (that more than half of Americans receive significant revenue from the federal government). Also, you see studies that show half of all federal tax filers only pay 3.5% of revenues. If you reach a point where people consider higher taxes a boon rather than a burden, our entire exercise in self-government and our free republic is going to be in danger. I would argue that the harder you make it for the government to take what you make, the better off you’re going to be.

Pushing a Balanced Budget Amendment would send a powerful signal about the GOP’s seriousness on fiscal conservatism. Is that something you think might happen?

Absolutely. There are people who say that it will never happen. But, we live in a country that has seen the Constitution amended so that slavery has been abolished, so that women have the right to vote, and I think those were a lot harder things to do than to just ask politicians not to waste your money and run up deficits…We always hear arguments from people about how something can’t be done, but if we would have listened to that, we’d probably still have 13 colonies.

What issues do you think the pundits and bloggers are not spending enough time on in the spending front?

I think that they’re doing it pretty well, but I always like to point out one fundamental thing: the Democrats told us Washington spent too much money, they got elected, and then they immediately spent more.

So, I think what would be helpful is if people had instances or ideas about government spending that they wanted to send to the Fiscal Integrity Task Force, send them to the House Policy Website or post them, because we check the blogs. Give your ideas to us; now’s a great time! Also, …if they think their Congressman would be a good member of a FIT task force, encourage them to join us. The more the merrier…

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