In Augusta and Washington in recent days, we have seen leaders of what is supposed to be the party of small government fail to fight for that philosophy. Though the debates were on very distinct issues, they both featured at least part of the Republican Party’s leadership defending big government, rather than fiercely fighting to reduce its size.
In Washington, D.C., the debate centered around the renewal of the Patriot Act — or at least portions of it. Three key provisions of the act were due to expire May 31, and rather than pass a reform bill (the USA Freedom Act) that sailed through the U.S. House, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to simply extend the Patriot Act. His home-state colleague, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, objected to extending these provisions, particularly Section 215, which the Obama administration used as legal justification for its bulk collection of phone records.
So, we had here the remarkable sight of Mitch McConnell, who once said that his number one goal was to defeat Barack Obama, supporting the White House’s efforts on the Patriot Act. Rather than the Senate Republicans as a whole standing up to the expanded surveillance state, Paul had to work with his Democratic colleagues to stall renewal of the Patriot Act. Though he was ultimately unsuccessful in repealing it entirely, he was at least able to force some minor reforms.
Back in Augusta, the discussion focused on the state budget. Senate Republicans hammered out a budget deal with Democrats that seemed to pretty much give them everything they wanted. They threw Gov. Paul LePage’s tax and welfare reform efforts overboard in exchange for a promise to pass a constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds vote to raise the income tax. Now, setting aside the fact that the last time the income tax was raised in Maine I was nine years old, most tax increases in recent years have been part of budgets that have been passed by a two-thirds margin anyway. Not only that, even if the constitutional amendment passes the Legislature (and it might not, regardless of what Democratic leaders promise) it still would have to be ratified by the voters.
Fortunately, here in Maine, we have House Republican Leader Ken Fredette and his caucus to watch our backs. Rather than tilting at constitutional amendment windmills, they’re rightfully demanding that the budget be closer to LePage’s initial proposal. If Democrats are unwilling to consider any income tax cut, then we should at least see some major movement from them on welfare reform. To abandon both of these ideas is simply unacceptable.
In both of these cases, there is an intramural fight within the Republican Party where both sides have fair points. In D.C., Paul is right that bulk data collection is unnecessary and unconstitutional; however, there are certainly parts of the Patriot Act that are reasonable and worth preserving. In Augusta, Senate Republicans are right to reject LePage’s sales tax expansion; however, they should not have abandoned the idea of an income tax cut entirely.
In Augusta and Washington, D.C., we see that there are some Republicans who are willing to mount principled stances in favor of smaller government, on both fiscal issues and civil liberties. These debates show us that when the Republican Party is divided over the size of government, the big-government status quo carries the day. The GOP can win this fight, as has been evident with constitutional carry, but only if the party itself stays united in truly embracing small government.