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For the House GOP, A Belated Evolution

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By George F. Will
Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Before evolution produced creatures of our perfection, there was a three-ton dinosaur, the stegosaurus, so neurologically sluggish that when its tail was injured, significant time elapsed before news of the trauma meandered up its long spine to its walnut-size brain. This primitive beast, not the dignified elephant, should be the symbol of House Republicans.

Yes, one should not taint all of them because of the behavior of most of them. Why, perhaps half a dozen of the 231 Republican representatives authored none of the transportation bill's 6,371 earmarks -- pork projects. And now among House Republicans there are Darwinian stirrings, prompted by concerns about survival.

In Washington, such concerns often are confused with and substitute for moral epiphanies. Tom DeLay will not return as leader of House Republicans, whose new fastidiousness is not yet so severe that they are impatient with Ohio Rep. Bob Ney's continuing chairmanship of the Committee on House Administration, in spite of services he rendered to Jack Abramoff. Ney has explained, by way of extenuation -- yes, extenuation -- that he did not know what he was doing.

Anyway, catalyzed by DeLay's decision to recede, House Republicans, perhaps emboldened by the examples of Afghanistan and Iraq, are going to risk elections. When they elect their leaders, they should consider the following:

The national pastime is no longer baseball, it is rent-seeking -- bending public power for private advantage. There are two reasons why rent-seeking has become so lurid, but those reasons for today's dystopian politics are reasons why most suggested cures seem utopian.

The first reason is big government -- the regulatory state. This year Washington will disperse $2.6 trillion, which is a small portion of Washington's economic consequences, considering the costs and benefits distributed by incessant fiddling with the tax code, and by government's regulatory fidgets.

Second, House Republicans, after 40 years in the minority, have, since 1994, wallowed in the pleasures of power. They have practiced DeLayism, or "K Street conservatism." This involves exuberantly serving rent-seekers, who hire K Street lobbyists as helpers. For House Republicans the aim of the game is to build political support. But Republicans shed their conservatism in the process of securing their seats in the service, they say, of conservatism.

Liberals practice "K Street liberalism" with an easy conscience because they believe government should do as much as possible for as many interests as possible. But "K Street conservatism" compounds unseemliness with hypocrisy. Until the Bush administration, with its incontinent spending, unleashed an especially conscienceless Republican control of both political branches, conservatives pretended to believe in limited government. The past five years, during which the number of registered lobbyists more than doubled, have proved that, for some Republicans, conservative virtue was merely the absence of opportunity for vice.

The way to reduce rent-seeking is to reduce the government's role in the allocation of wealth and opportunity. People serious about reducing the role of money in politics should be serious about reducing the role of politics in distributing money. But those most eager to do the former -- liberals, generally -- are the least eager to do the latter.

A surgical reform would be congressional term limits, which would end careerism, thereby changing the incentives for entering politics and for becoming, when in office, an enabler of rent-seekers in exchange for their help in retaining office forever. The movement for limits -- a Madisonian reform to alter the dynamic of interestedness that inevitably animates politics -- was surging until four months after Republicans took control of the House. In May 1995 the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that congressional terms could not be limited by states' statutes. Hence a constitutional amendment is necessary. Hence Congress must initiate limits on itself. That will never happen.

Although bribery already is a crime and lobbying is constitutionally protected (the First Amendment right "to petition the government for a redress of grievances"), a few institutional reforms milder than term limits might be useful. But none will be more than marginally important, absent the philosophical renewal of conservatism. To which end, whom should Republicans elect?

Roy Blunt of Missouri, the man who was selected, not elected, to replace DeLay, is a champion of earmarks as a form of constituent service. If, as one member says, "the problem is not just DeLay but 'DeLay Inc.' " Blunt is not the solution. So far -- the field may expand -- the choice for majority leader is between Blunt and John Boehner of Ohio. A salient fact: In 15 years in the House, Boehner has never put an earmark in an appropriations or transportation bill.

georgewill@washpost.com


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