(Dr. Tom Coburn) – Sixteen years ago I was among a class of 73 freshmen Republicans who came to Washington for reasons very similar to why 87 freshmen Republicans were just elected.
The country was alarmed by Washington’s attempts to take over our health care system and disgusted with Congress’ spending and self-indulgence.
It’s well-known that the 1994 Republican Revolution sputtered and failed to turn the country around. The failure of that revolution though was not so much a matter of failed tactics, but failed character.
Each turning point for the worse – the failure of the government shutdown, the betrayal of the term limits movement, overspending, the K-Street project, earmarxism, and entitlement expansion – came about because of hubris, self-preservation and careerism.
The shutdown battle, in particular, continues to be misunderstood. Even though Republicans badly managed the shutdown from a public relations standpoint – we failed to convince the public why government needed to be limited – the battle was nearly won until then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole decided to leave town to campaign in New Hampshire.
Had principle trumped careerism, the outcome could have been very different. This time, I’m confident the outcome can be different if the freshman and others keep a few principles in mind:
It’s not about Republicans. It’s about the republic.
In the past decade, experts on both sides have boasted about permanent majorities. The country has no time for such foolishness.
Our future is as uncertain and tenuous as at any point in our history. The perfect political moment to tackle our debt problem will always be a mirage just beyond the horizon of the next election.
The time for hard choices, and leadership that honors our heritage of service and sacrifice, is now.
The enemy is not the other party, the president or your colleagues but the idea that the federal government is at the center of our national life, the equalizer of all injustice and the provider of material wealth.
Ideas are much harder to displace than individuals. Running the table in 2012 will not solve anything if the country is not prepared to change their expectations of the federal government.
The left is betting that the public’s support for entitlements, once acquired, will trump their disgust with deficits. This is the real debate that will determine the future of our country.
We have to earn a mandate to reform entitlement and reduce the size of government by building credibility one step at a time with aggressive oversight and common sense spending cuts.
You are swearing an oath to defend the Constitution, not your state or district.
The triumph of parochialism in recent decades caused an explosion of earmarks and a massive expansion of government, which has doubled in size in the past decade.
Reducing earmarks will help but Congress has to restore the right balance with state and local governments. Across the country, cities and states are facing bankruptcy in part because of micromanagement from Washington.
So far, the new House majority is sending all the right signals. House Speaker John Boehner, R-OH, who himself was a casualty of the leadership shake-ups of the late 1990s, has learned these lessons better than anyone.
Beginning the new majority with a reading of the Constitution is a wise move that engages the public in a discussion about our founding document.
The fact is, the government we can afford looks much more like a government that is constitutional than previous Congresses have wanted to admit.
The House is taking other important steps. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s “cut-as-you-go” approach to governing reflects reality.
House transition chair Greg Walden’s move to cut the cost of Congress by $35 million is leadership by example.
House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s pledge to bring non-defense discretionary spending to 2008 levels will build credibility and make further reforms possible. Ryan is right that we can choose a path of prosperity over austerity, but only if we act quickly.
Finally, the majority’s pledge to vote to repeal the health care law is the first step in a long battle to repeal this fatally-flawed legislation.
On the Senate side, we’re grateful to have reinforcements in the form of new Senators and a new majority in the House that can help us drive a limited government agenda.
If the Senate wants to obstruct the House’s efforts to put us on a sustainable course that will be their choice, and they will be held accountable.
The real challenge for new members, however, will come later when the certainty of principle wanes and competes with the allure of power.
The debt limit debate will be a key test. Some have cautioned new members against “playing chicken” with the debt limit.
Yet, by growing government to an unsustainable level both parties have been playing chicken with our future and our national survival.
If the administration and Congress express no interest in reducing spending in a meaningful way prior to raising the debt limit we’ll be on a course to experience a catastrophe that would be far worse than a debt limit standoff.
Boehner has described the House as an “outpost in Washington for the American people and their desire for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government.”
I’d suggest the new members have a chance to secure not just an outpost, but a beachhead for freedom in a struggle as significant as any in our history.
For new members, this can be your D-Day against debt, and the dissolution of the republic itself. You can make history not with your words, but with your actions.
With courage and humility, you can be remembered not with scandal and disappointment, but as President Reagan said in his famous D-Day speech quoting Stephen Spender’s poem, as leaders who “ left the vivid air signed with your honor.”
(Sen. Tom Coburn is an Oklahoma Republican)