Pity the Poor Fiscal Conservative

Because no one else cares if the government busts the budget for Katrina relief.

Fiscal conservatives are angry. Of course, they’re always angry. They’re like social conservatives that way. (The fiscal conservatives who are social conservatives, like Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., are so angry they can barely finish the crossword.) Instead of getting exercised about the radical homosexual agenda and prayer in school, the fiscal conservatives fume about stuff that bores the majority of the Fox News producers: balanced budgets and emergency supplemental funding. The other big difference is that current Republican leaders don’t listen as attentively to fiscal conservatives. Terri Schiavo—she’s worth a special session of Congress. No one beats it back to Washington on Air Force One to sign stricter spending legislation. Still, the fiscal conservatives soldier on. “We spend a lot of time in groups of 12 hoping for a tipping point,” says one of their tribe, “another Tsongas or Ross Perot.”

Their latest just cause for frustration is the Katrina cleanup. The $62 billion already appropriated is just the first installment of a tab that might reach $200 billion. Where is the money going to come from to pay for it, they ask?

The green eyeshade crowd has a number of reasons to hate the red ink. Deficit spending funds ineffective programs, expands the deficit, and drives up interest rates. The Katrina cleanup, in which money is just getting dumped into the Gulf (they may be using $100 bills to patch levees, for all they are spending), is particularly troubling for them. If government just throws money like that and fudges the books, how can it be trusted to clean up the mess effectively?

The President has dived into the details of Katrina recovery, announcing 1-800 numbers and speaking at length about debris removal. But when it comes to how he’s going to pay for the new spending, he is more vague. He has promised that he won’t touch tax cuts. He says he wants spending cuts but has not said which ones.

Bush officials and advisers say they’re going to balance out the costs, but they’ve said that before. Privately they seem to have a less rigorous view of the perils of blowing the bank. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil says that when he tried to resist tax cuts, Vice President Cheney replied: “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” During last year’s presidential campaign, a senior administration official put their worldview more bluntly: “Name me one person who has lost an election because of the deficit.”

White House aides also don’t think all the carping about nickels and dimes and billions is genuine. Members rail against a budget that’s out of balance but then lunge to protect their pet projects when they’re under the knife. (Karl Rove can reportedly do a spot-on imitation of a congressman who cycles from budget-cutting bravado to sniveling pleas for hometown pork.)

But Bush aides say this time is different. They may actually heed the fiscal nitpickers. They recognize that they’ve been putting off this constituency for too long—ever since the December 2003 prescription-drug entitlement, which handed out hundreds of billions to seniors and drug companies. In his weakened political state, Bush has to pay attention to even the neglected members of his wavering base. Small-business owners who have supported Republicans care about righteous fiscal behavior. It’s also a game of chicken between Congress and the White House. Republican leaders are worried that the White House is trying to make them go first, naming unpopular cuts for which they’ll be tagged in their elections in 2006. They believe that if the president wants to make up for his slow response to Katrina with big spending, he should say where the cuts are coming from.

The small and unhappy band of fiscal conservatives are doing what they can to make their leaders squirm. Mike Pence, R-Ind., has suggested holding off on implementation of the prescription-drug bill. Others have suggested tinkering with the $286 billion transportation bill. Those are two juicy targets with big price tags, but they’re also two pieces of legislation shepherded by House Speaker Denny Hastert.

They’re also two big accomplishments Republicans are going to run on. Plans are already in place for an extended campaign rollout of the prescription-drug program. Members will return to their district and hold events to introduce seniors to the new benefit, which starts in January 2006. The transaction is easy: I give you your prescription-drug card; you give me your vote.

The problem that always bedevils the fiscal conservatives is that they are directly targeting the horse-trading that makes government go. Start pulling out earmarks and you unravel support for the whole bill. Deny seniors their prescription-drug bill and you anger a bloc of voters far larger and more influential than those watching the pennies. When social conservatives balk, they represent massive organized blocs of voters who have shown their willingness to stay home. When fiscal conservatives balk, only a few thousand ornery Republicans in New Hampshire and Arizona abandon the party.

Can the Democrats grab this angry constituency? Not likely. The Democratic Party hasn’t shown bristling accounting leadership recently. “After the Democrats’ obstructionist approach to Social Security reform, it is more difficult for them to claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility,” says Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Budget. John Kerry and John Edwards both gave speeches Tuesday calling for a new era of leadership to address the challenges posed by the hurricane and the poverty that it exposed, but neither called for sacrifice or any painful tradeoffs.

After days of weighty speeches on the topics of race and poverty in America, lawmakers from both parties have reverted to the familiar evasions. The bucks are passing, the deficit will keep growing, and the fiscal conservatives will stay very, very angry.