Devil In The Details

With all the regularity of a Swiss watch, we find ourselves facing another case of 11th hour brinkmanship as Congress again deliberates a contentious omnibus spending bill–a massive 1,600 page measure that would fund all discretionary programs through 2015 (an additional continuing resolution would fund Homeland Security through February).

Just as these recurrent arm-twisting sessions seem to be a matter of routine, there is another rather disquieting trend starting to become apparent among certain quarters of the right (particularly on Twitter; its instantaneous and fast-spreading delivery of opinion makes it easy to gauge one’s leanings), namely, that it behooves the GOP to not contest passage of spending bills for fear of being criticized by Democrats and a compliant media for “shutting down” government.

One line of reasoning I saw in passing today went roughly along the lines of: “average voters won’t care about details of bills, only whether government gets shut down”, the extension of this being that it is always Republicans who get blamed for government closing up shop–deserved or not–and for the sake of maintaining public relations in good standing, just don’t bother standing in the way.

While certainly it’s true during the last shutdown that the GOP (especially Senator Ted Cruz) was indeed blamed quite heartily, I believe it a mistake to get into the habit of abandoning due diligence on these spending bills all for want of avoiding egg on our faces. We rightly bemoan the overall size of omnibus spending ($1.1 trillion and over 1600 pages, in this case) but too often our inquiry ends there to steer clear of allegations that those intransigent Republicans are intent on shuttering government again should the bill fail.

Focusing criticism at the general scope of spending without digging deeper is where I think we actually end up losing the average voter. Gargantuan numbers like “trillion” and “1600 pages” bear no significance whatsoever to people concerned with putting food on the table and paying the electric bill. Such terms are so inaccessible, most people would tune them out just to keep their lives simple. Who could blame them?

But the devil is in the details themselves, which far from turning people off, can end up being quite useful to highlight government excess, in that quite a few omnibus provisions do have bearing on an individual’s day-to-day.

Take the internet tax moratorium, which prevents states from taxing internet access. The omnibus bill inexplicably extends the moratorium–which expires today–into 2015 rather than making it permanent. Given the pervasiveness of internet usage in the US, I can’t imagine a single voter appreciating the idea of having their access taxed. Demonstrating to voters that Congress has the ability to dispense with the issue in perpetuity by making the tax ban permanent is a winning message. People can relate to it.

Or, consider education spending. Our education system is in upheaval, in no small part due to top-down federal meddling through unpopular programs like No Child Left Behind and Common Core. Despite studies showing little to no benefit to children’s educational and social well-being under Head Start, the omnibus bill continues to pump billions into the initiative that has already consumed $180 billion since 1965. Higher spending and subsidies for programs like Pell grants and K-12 education continues apace as well.

Decidedly visible grassroots efforts on the part of angry parents and sympathetic local educators to curb federal intrusion into policy it isn’t equipped to administer has only grown in recent years, and as omnibus spending only serves to further root federal influence ever deeper, we should be fanning those flames by calling attention to additional spending that diverts local dollars to distant bureaucracies. No one wants to be doing any more perverse Common Core math.

I’ve always tried to maintain a healthy dose of realism in considering what conservatives are capable of doing given the political landscape. No bones about it, we face an uphill battle not just in reining in expansive government itself, but convincing people that we should.

Which is why this reluctance to engage with Democrats and the media at all out of a paralysis of fear is becoming so grating. At some point we must offer even the occasional challenge to runaway spending and regulation, yet we’ve become so concerned with electing Republicans to Congress that, once we have, we fear exerting pressure on the other side for trepidation of losing influence, and eventually our majority.

We continue our willingness to play on their terms. They’ve made us so fearful of failure that we increasingly don’t even bother fighting at all. When did we become such pacifists?

If we aren’t prepared to do the hard work, day in and out, of identifying and exploiting messages we can win on–and this omnibus provides many besides the aforementioned–we’ll continue getting herculean bills to fund herculean government. I’d rather have knuckle-dragging fistacuffs with Democrats and lose in the end, than meekly concede that it isn’t worth fighting at all. If we’re incapable of rousing ourselves to address even the simple stuff–abandoning internet access taxes or allowing Ex-Im Bank’s charter to expire is indeed simple–how much harder will Social Security reform be?

To improve our lot, we can’t simply count on the right people doing the right things any longer. Because Democrats will always exist, we must therefore convince the wrong people to do the right thing, which means abandoning our hesitancy and engaging them. Agree with the likes of Sen. Cruz or Rep. Justin Amash or not, but they’re unwilling to cede anymore ground. They want to bring their ideological opponents kicking and screaming into their line of thinking, which takes work.

In any case, if we’re perpetually on the brink of shooting ourselves in the head, I’d appreciate more of a choice between a punch-drunk Democrat party prepared to squeeze the trigger, and an effete Republican party that speaks of limited government, but is nonetheless content to load the ammunition anyway. Time will tell if the GOP wants to change that. Given that House Speaker John Boehner called the omnibus a “good” “responsible” bill–he read all 1,600 pages in two days?–I’m not holding my breath for too long.

NOTE: Since beginning this article, the House has passed the omnibus bill 219-206. It heads to the Senate for approval.

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About Michael Haugen

Michael Haugen is a full-spectrum conservative and recent graduate from Eastern Washington University (BS Biology). His main interests in politics and public policy center around health care, education and tax reform. He'll be returning to EWU in 2014 to complete a Master's degree in Public Administration. Follow him on Twitter: @HaugenTRA

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