Moving the debate

For a quarter of a century, Americans have tended to vote in national elections for the major candidate who promised lower taxes and less government.

The Clinton era — 1992-2000 — might seem an exception. But in fact, the 1992 election was largely a repudiation of George H.W. Bush after he violated his “no new taxes” pledge. Instead, America turned to a pair of Southern “New Democrats” who promised to abandon the tax-and-spend heritage of their Great Society forebears, instead vowing to “end welfare as we know it,” etc.

Which makes the great political question of our era: Why does the electorate repeatedly vote for smaller, less-expensive government, yet keep ending up with a more costly, more meddlesome central state — decorated up with frivolous expenditures like an overdone casino Christmas tree?

A cynic might conclude the system is so broken that Washington can no longer correct its course in response to signals from the voters — that the ballots we cast in November now have about as much impact on a headstrong federal bureaucracy as a bunch of student council members deluded into thinking they’re “running the school” when their real impact is limited to choosing what color crepe paper to use in decorating the gym for the big dance.

But, bless his heart, Congressman Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., has yet to give up.

“When Rep. Jeff Flake rises to speak in the House of Representatives, his colleagues grimace,” the Los Angeles Times reported this week. “Usually, the Arizona Republican is out to shame them for earmarking money for pet projects that have little to do with federal priorities.”

Recently, Mr. Flake targeted a $628,843 earmark for grape genetics research in upstate New York. “What mechanism is there to stop Congress from funding mold research on gourmet cheese, or soil research for truffle farming?” he asked. “Where does it stop?”

Freshman Rep. Michael A. Arcuri, D-N.Y., responded to Rep. Flake’s attack on his grape funding, according to the Times: “It has become overwhelmingly clear to me that some of my colleagues are more concerned with establishing a reputation than addressing the needs of the American people.”

When Rep. Flake challenged an earmark for a mule museum in Bishop, Calif., Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., responded that the museum was crucial to the economy of his tourism-dependent town. “One thing that I think we forget is that the people in Bishop pay taxes,” Rep. McKeon explained, “and I guarantee you … they have gotten very little back from the federal government for the taxes that they have sent here to Washington.”

But the gentlemen are in error; Rep. Flake is correct.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, Americans are perfectly happy with their grapes just the way they are and the vast majority will live and die without ever knowing or caring whether Buck McKeon got his mule museum.

If Rep. McKeon worries the people of Bishop don’t get much for their tax money, then he should work to lower those taxes so they’ll have enough left to fund their own mule exhibits, while making sure the money they do send to Washington finances a fair, accessible court system and a national defense, rather than $100,000 earmarks for the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center at the home of the Pennsylvania groundhog, or the one earmark Rep. Flake has actually succeeded in killing, a $129,000 allocation for the Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree in Spruce Pine, N.C.

“He’s taken a small issue and made it into an issue of national debate,” Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., told the Times after Flake successfully killed his Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree allocation. “He’s moving the debate in his direction.”

Last year, Rep. Flake’s amendments to strike individual earmarks drew an average of 68 votes, you see. This year, 85.

Unfortunately, that means 350 congressmen — and the constituents who keep rewarding them for taxing the hell out of “the other guy” to bring home all that bacon — still don’t get it.

Will they wake up in time? If not, perhaps someday we can drive to Bishop to see them on display, stuffed in the Mule Museum.

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