Deep Pockets, Small Government and the Man in the Middle

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) had the look of a hunted man as he walked from the Capitol to the Longworth House Office Building yesterday for a speech to young conservatives.

Pence, chairman of a group of House conservatives called the Republican Study Committee, was complaining to his companions about a Robert Novak column in yesterday's Washington Post saying Pence was subjected to a "closed-door auto-da-fe" from Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay for daring to suggest that the profligate House leadership should reconsider its big-spending ways. But Pence got the leadership's message, loud and clear.

Pence's speech was billed by the conservative Young America's Foundation (YAF) as a discussion of "why the conservative leadership in Congress has abandoned its allegiance to the principles of smaller government" and gone on "massive spending splurges." But instead, a chastened congressman delivered unstinting praise for his superiors.

"I believe in the leadership of this Congress," Pence told his surprised audience. "I believe in the men and women who lead the House of Representatives and the Senate. I see them as men and women of integrity and principle, who work every day to bring the ideals of our Founders into the well of the people's house."

To the further surprise of his YAF hosts, Pence left the room without the promised Q&A. "Unfortunately, the congressman will be unable to answer questions today," a befuddled young host ad-libbed. "But we are going to have a door prize."

Ideology and party loyalty are clashing among congressional Republicans these days, and the smart money is on party loyalty. Conservatives, enraged by talk of spending $200 billion on the Hurricane Katrina recovery, are calling on the leadership to slow down popular programs and to find spending cuts to offset the expenses. But congressional leaders have rejected most of the conservatives' entreaties.

Just before Pence gave his toned-down speech, a fellow member of the Republican Study Committee, lunching with reporters at Charlie Palmer Steak, accepted that Congress would not find cuts to pay for the $62 billion spent so far on Katrina -- much less the $250 billion more that Louisiana wants from the feds. If "we find $20 billion in offsets, we'll probably declare victory," said the congressman, who spoke on the condition that he not be named.

As fiscal hawks surrendered, would-be government contractors were meeting in the Hart Senate Office Building to figure out how to get a share of the money. A "Katrina Reconstruction Summit," hosted by Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and sponsored by Halliburton, among others, brought some 200 lobbyists, corporate representatives and government staffers to a room overlooking the Capitol for a five-hour conference that included time for a "networking break" and advice on "opportunities for private sector involvement."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) sent his budget director, Bill Hoagland, who cautioned that federal Katrina spending might not exceed $100 billion. But John Clerici, from a law firm that helped sponsor the event, told the group that spending would "probably be larger" than $200 billion. "It's going to be spent in a fast and furious way," Clerici said.

Sipping coffee from china cups and munching on doughnuts, the corporate crowd heard Joe McInerney, president of the American Hotel and Lodging Association, predict: "I think we'll see Mardi Gras in New Orleans to some extent this year."

Small Business Administration official Herbert L. Mitchell told them to think of the SBA as "really the federal government's disaster bank." Mitchell said his payroll has gone from 800 to 2,300 since the storm and he is adding 200 people a day as he tries to increase maximum payments to small businesses.

This sort of federal honey pot alarms fiscal conservatives. Earlier this month, the conservative Heritage Foundation complained about a 33 percent expansion of the federal government since 2001, even before the Katrina spending. "Unless lawmakers make difficult decisions now, they will dump the largest debt in world history into the laps of the next generation," Heritage concluded.

The natural enemy of this spending is Pence's 110-member Republican Study Committee in the House. House GOP leaders have taken to calling the group "the minority caucus," believing that Republicans would return to minority status if they were to follow its recommendations.

But the minority caucus lost its nerve. People arrived at Pence's speech to learn that, after he objected to YAF's original description, the topic had been changed to a more neutral question: "Have conservatives given up on smaller government?"

Pence's answer: Not in the least. The silver-haired third-termer lamented that "many Republicans see government increasingly as the cure for every social ill," and he said "we've got to figure out how to pay" for the Katrina spending.

But Pence did not have thoughts on that question, other than the RSC's "Operation Offset," a list of possible cuts that has been dismissed by the GOP leadership he lavishly praised. As for the originally planned talk questioning the leadership's fealty to small government, YAF spokesman Jason Mattera said "it would have been nice" to hear Pence's views.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company