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A Wisconsin Lesson for Congress

Jun 04, 2012

What are the lessons from Wisconsin if Governor Scott Walker prevails in today's recall election?

Over at National Review, John Fund provides a rather in-depth answer. Importantly, he says a Walker victory will mean voters view the reforms as working:

Walker can claim to have wiped out a $3.6 billion deficit without raising taxes or seeing service cutbacks. Indeed, property taxes fell statewide by 0.4 percent last year, the first time they've fallen since 1998. The average homeowner's property tax bill would have been about $700 higher if the previous rate of increase had continued. The state now expects to have a surplus of $150 million at the end of the current budget cycle.

One area Fund does not address though is the impact of a Walker win on Congress. If voters reward Walker for taking a principled stand and enacting reforms that actually work, lawmakers in Washington who are willing to demonstrate a seriousness of purpose should feel empowered to lead. Given America's increasingly perilous state, there is no shortage of opportunities.

First, lawmakers must resist a return to the status quo:

Highway Bill: In 2005, 98% of lawmakers approved a highway and transit bill that bankrupted the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF), necessitating multiple bailouts and costing taxpayers tens of billions of dollars. Later this week, the House will vote on a commonsense solution to Washington's profligate highway and transit spending: a motion to ensure federal highway and transit spending does not exceed revenues coming into the trust fund. Of course, longer-term, lawmakers must begin the process of turning back transportation authority to the states.

Farm Bill: Although there is bipartisan talk of reform, the entrenched special interests appear to have been successful in blocking serious reform. For decades, lawmakers have used the farm bill to funnel subsidies to special agriculture interests and further distort the market through mandates (see ethanol). Lawmakers must make the case that this market-distorting system cannot be sustained, and vigorously oppose the upcoming farm bill on its merits.

The other element of the farm bill, which accounts for roughly three-quarters of its spending, is the food stamp program, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In the afterglow of President Obama's stimulus binge, spending on food stamps doubled, going from $39 billion in 2008 to $80 billion in 2012. Lawmakers should consider SNAP separately, building on the House-passed reconciliation measure and outlining serious reforms to the program.

Spending: Last summer's debt ceiling debacle capped discretionary spending for FY2013 at $1.047 trillion. House Republicans wisely rejected that number, instead opting to spend $19 billion less than allowed under the law. While more can and should be done to reduce discretionary spending, it was a small but important policy step and conservative lawmakers must stand their ground. It sends an important message to Americans that they are serious, and will not be bullied by President Obama's outrageous claim that a step toward fiscal responsibility will "degrade many of the basic Government services on which the American people rely."

There are also numerous opportunities for lawmakers to put forth a proactive agenda: privatization of Fannie and Freddie; comprehensive welfare reform; elimination of all energy subsidies; allowing states to opt out of No Child Left Behind; allowing individual union workers to be rewarded outside the framework of their union contract; and, of course, Heritage's comprehensive plan to save the American dream.

Unfortunately, as The Hill reported last month, moderate lawmakers have put pressure on House leaders to move away from principled legislative fights:

The fact that GOP leaders relied on Democratic votes to pass the [Export-Import Bank] reauthorization did not go unnoticed by conservative insiders, who contend that such a pattern began following last summer's deal to increase the debt limit.

Not only have they worked with congressional Democrats to reauthorize the bank, which President Obama once called a "fund for corporate welfare," but they have also embraced the President's call to maintain a lower, taxpayer-subsidized rate on Stafford loans. Yet, despite those policy accommodations, President Obama continues to criticize congressional Republicans as he attempts to turn Washington's legislative paralysis into a political energy shot for his sluggish reelection effort.

Back to Fund, he notes the Wisconsin reforms are not only working from a budget perspective, but they are also increasing economic confidence within the state:

Separately, the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce survey just found that 62 percent of the members it surveyed plan to create jobs in Wisconsin by year's end. A full 95 percent of CEOs surveyed said the state is headed in the right direction. "The word is out from Main Street to Wall Street that Wisconsin is the place to create jobs and expand," says Kurt Bauer, the president of WMC.

Properly understood, a Walker victory should embolden lawmakers - especially conservatives - to put forth bold, reform-oriented proposals that would limit the size, scope and cost of the federal government. Heritage Action is convinced, despite the spin and antics from the left and hostile media outlets, that good policy is indeed good politics. And if Walker thrives today, it will be yet more proof that Americans will respond positively to serious leaders who put forth bold solutions.