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I was rummaging through my closet the other day when I came across an old T-shirt. Stamped across the front were the words "SCRAP THE CODE: The Armey-Tauzin Tax Reform Debates." On the back was a list of 25 cities on the "National Tax Reform Tour."
What a difference a few years makes. During this election season, Republican congressional leaders awarded members with a bronze bust of Ronald Reagan if they could prove they'd hosted town halls to explain to seniors how to sign up for the newly created Medicare Part D, which created a huge new prescription-drug entitlement in an already huge entitlement program.
And we wonder why we were beaten like a rented mule on Tuesday?
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The contest between the parties has come, for now, to a decisive close. But as Republicans, we have a choice to make, and we need to make it soon. The factions of the party must decide: Are we going to re-emerge as the party of ideas -- or be content as assistant hirelings of big government?
We might begin by asking why we lost. Taxes, first, is the easy one, and there is no need for a Republican mea culpa here. We've cut taxes, and Americans and the economy are better off for it. But recently we've been satisfied with putting Democrats "on record" supporting higher taxes. We need to do more. We will soon be bumping up against the deadlines to either repeal or extend the Bush tax cuts on income, estates, capital gains and dividends. This presents an excellent opportunity to rebuild momentum. Our congressional leadership should travel around the country -- concert tour style -- explaining why individuals spend their money better than the government.
Second, spending. This one is more difficult because it requires not just a mea culpa but abject apology. Not the politician-style -- "I'm sorry if you were offended by spending that our opponents have misinterpreted as offensive" -- but rather: "We've overspent, badly, and it was offensive to you as well as our conservative principles. We're sorry, and we're going to do better."
It is not only the level of spending, of course, that has been offensive. It is the manner of spending. Pork-barrel earmarks, or "member projects" (as we preferred to call them so as not to offend our own sensibilities), greatly multiplied under Republican rule. The Democrats were happy as long as enough crumbs fell from the Republican appropriators' table. Now that we are in the minority, will we be similarly satisfied or will we seek to change the practice?
On this issue, our constituents need no convincing. They know it is wrong. We need the courage to enact meaningful reforms, doubly difficult because of the present situation. But if we are chastened -- we ought to be -- perhaps we will emerge stronger for it. If Republicans are serious about changing direction, there will be ample opportunities in the next two years to translate our dormant beliefs into action.
The Farm Bill probably provides the best example of where we've gone wrong, and what we need to do to hew back to our first principles.
During the 1990s, then-Sen. Phil Gramm accurately described U.S. farm policy as "enough to make a Russian Commissar puke." The Republicans assembled the "Freedom to Farm Act," which, starting in 1996, put U.S. farmers on a glide path toward an end to subsidies. Somewhere between the field and the silo, however, we became mired in the political mud. In 2002, we repealed the Freedom to Farm Act and in its place installed the "Farm Security Act" -- those who value the adage about trading freedom for security can pause and shudder here -- with even more lavish subsidies.
Now, with reauthorization of the Farm Bill on the horizon next year, we have to decide whether we will up the ante with Democrats in terms of red state/blue state politics in the heartland, or whether we believe our own rhetoric about free markets. This debate will have implications larger than the fiscal one. Most notably, it will determine if we are serious about the future of free trade.
Of immediate concern to Republicans in the House of Representatives is deciding who will be our standard bearer. Can those who have been a part of the current leadership team convince the other members that they've had an epiphany? It's possible, I suppose. But I think we'd be best served with some fresh faces, congressmen like Mike Pence and John Shadegg, who haven't had to travel that road to Damascus.
Mr. Flake is a Republican representative from Arizona.