On K Street Conservatism

For a few conservatives, the accumulation of discontents may have begun building toward today's critical mass in December 2001 with the No Child Left Behind law, which intruded the federal government deeply into the state and local responsibility of education, grades K through 12. That intrusion has been accompanied by a 51 percent increase in the budget of the Education Department that conservatives once aspired to abolish.

The accumulation accelerated in December 2003, when the Republican House leadership held open for three hours the vote on adding a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare. The time was needed to browbeat enough conservatives to pass the largest expansion of the welfare state since LBJ--an entitlement with an unfunded liability larger than that of Social Security. The president's only believable veto threat in nearly five years was made to deter an attempt to cut spending by trimming the drug entitlement.

Agriculture subsidies increased 40 percent while farm income was doubling. Conservatives concerned about promiscuous uses of government were appalled when congressional Republicans waded into the Terri Schiavo tragedy. Then came the conjunction of the transportation bill and Katrina. The transportation bill's cost, honestly calculated, exceeded the threshold that the president had said would trigger his first veto. (He is the first president in 176 years to serve a full term without vetoing anything. His father cast 44 vetoes. Ronald Reagan's eight-year total was 78.) In 1987 Reagan vetoed a transportation bill because it contained 152 earmarks--pork--costing $1.4 billion. The bill President Bush signed contained 6,371, costing $24 billion. The total cost of the bill--$286 billion--is more, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than the combined costs of the Marshall Plan and the interstate highway system.

With Katrina, "nation building"--a phrase as sensible as "orchid building," and an undertaking expressive of extravagant confidence in government--has come home. It is one thing to invoke, as Reagan frequently did for national inspiration, the Puritans' image of building a "shining city upon a hill." It is another thing to adopt the policy of rebuilding a tarnished city--it was badly tarnished even before the inundation--that sits below sea level.

Could Katrina's costs be paid by budget cuts, perhaps starting with $24 billion of transportation earmarks? No, said the then House Majority Leader Tom DeLay--"The Hammer"--because Republicans have cut all inessential spending. With that, critical mass became explosive.

The indictments of DeLay--although certainly political in terms of the prosecutor's motive and probably unjust as a matter of law--are, considered solely in terms of their consequences, helpful to conservatives. DeLay, who neither knows nor cares any more about limited government than a camel knows or cares about calculus, probably will never return to the House leadership, and might even be voted out of the House in 13 months.

When hammered, people can become as flattened as veal scaloppine, or can become angry. Conservatives' anger forced Speaker Dennis Hastert to abandon his highhanded attempt to name California Rep. David Dreier as DeLay's chosen placeholder. Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt, who was named instead, will not relish turning into a pumpkin if DeLay returns. Besides, 50 Republican members can force leadership elections-- what a concept--and are apt to do so in January. Furthermore, in 2004 DeLay won with an underwhelming 55 percent, running nine points behind President Bush in his district.

DeLay is exhibit A for the proposition that many Republicans have gone native in Washington. Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, leader of the more than 100 conservative members of the Republican Study Committee, charges that some Republicans think "big government is good government if it's our government." DeLay's troubles, and his party's, may multiply with coming revelations about the seamy career of uber -lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He is emblematic of DeLay's faux conservatism--K Street conservatism. That is Republican power in the service of lobbyists who, in their K Street habitat, are in the service of rent seekers--interests eager to bend public power for their private advantage.

Since 2000 the number of registered lobbyists in Washington has more than doubled, from 16,342 to 34,785. They have not been attracted to the seat of government, like flies to honey, for the purpose of limiting government.

Conservatives are not supposed to be cuddly, or even particularly nice. They are, however, supposed to be competent. And to know that scarcity--of money, virtue, wisdom, competence, everything-- forces choices. Furthermore, they are supposed to have an unsentimental commitment to meritocracy and excellence. The fact that none of those responsible for the postwar planning, or lack thereof, in Iraq have been sacked suggests--no, shouts--that in Washington today there is no serious penalty for serious failure. Hence the multiplication of failures.