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Taking the heat

“In fire, gold is tested,” the saying goes. Just ask Mike Pence.

A third-term congressman from Indiana, Pence has been sorely tested lately, enduring a fire that few of us would want to withstand—and he’s demonstrating that he’s as good as gold.

That’s because Pence is largely responsible for the change in attitude we’re seeing in Republican leaders toward spending cuts.

Not long ago, they appeared unconcerned about the explosion in growth we’ve witnessed in the size of government over the last few years. Now, thanks mostly to the Republican Study Committee (which Pence heads), they’re talking seriously about cutting up to $50 billion from the federal budget over five years, plus cutting current spending and eliminating wasteful and unnecessary spending.

I don’t mean to imply that Pence has acted alone. Other conservative representatives, such as Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Jeff Flake of Arizona, have been instrumental in moving the debate in the “right” direction. And if the high-speed train that’s been barreling lately toward ever-bigger government is ever derailed, we’ll have them to thank.

“Sometimes a small group of people can take a stand, be defeated, and still make a difference.” Rep. Pence said that last year in a speech to The Heritage Foundation, long before he and his colleagues would take their current stand. He was referring to the Medicare drug-benefit vote of 2003, when the biggest expansion of entitlement spending in nearly 40 years was approved with the help of certain self-styled conservatives. Even in defeat, Pence said, he and his colleagues might have really won.

Pence couldn’t have known that a horrific national disaster would hit one year later, forcing the kind of introspection necessary to wake some lawmakers up to the point he had been trying to make. He simply saw that Republicans were on the verge of “a historic departure from the limited-government traditions of our party and millions of its most ardent supporters”—and he knew it was time to take a stand, no matter how unpopular or idealistic it would seem.

Pence, Hensarling and Flake have taken a lot of heat since then. But when you consider the state of fiscal discipline in Washington these days (or, more precisely, the lack of it), you see why we should be grateful to them for doing so. A new book of charts by Heritage budget expert Brian Riedl, “Federal Spending—By The Numbers,” shows just how bad things are.

Take overall spending. It’s up 33 percent since 2001, from $1,863 billion to $2,470 billion. In 2005, inflation-adjusted federal spending neared $22,000 per household, the highest level since World War II. For 2005, the government spent $21,956 per household, overall, taxed $19,147 per household, and ran a budget deficit of $2,809 per household, Riedl says.

Who out there thinks spending growth can grow at this pace forever? And what will we do when the bills come due?

You might think that increased defense spending and homeland-security funding since 9/11 are largely responsible. Sorry, no dice.

Riedl shows that from 2001 through 2003, spending expanded by $296 billion, of which $100 billion (34 percent) went for defense and $32 billion (11 percent) went for 9/11-related costs. That leaves $164 billion spent on items totally unrelated to defense and 9/11—more than half (55 percent) of the total amount.

So where does the increased spending go? To things like a 2002 farm bill estimated to cost $180 billion over 10 years. To a Medicare drug bill estimated to cost $724 billion in its first 10 years and as much as $2 trillion over the following decade. And so on. Nobody is refused, it seems, unless it’s someone calling for restraint and responsibility.

But that appears to be changing. GOP leaders are listening. And President Bush has signaled that he will help, too, noting at a recent news conference that “Congress needs to pay for as much of the hurricane relief as possible by cutting spending” and noting that he would “work with members of Congress to identify offsets.”

And why is this necessary? Because if we hope to leave a legacy of economic opportunity to our children—rather than saddling them with incredible debt and high taxes—then the bedrock conservative principle of limited government must be restored as the foundation of our nation.

As Pence noted in his Heritage speech, “Conservatives know that government that governs least governs best. Conservatives know that as government expands, freedom contracts. Conservatives know that government should never do for a man what he can and should do for himself.”

And if there’s one thing lawmakers should be able to do for themselves, it’s to be wise and frugal when spending the hard-earned tax dollars of their fellow Americans. Kudos to the brave souls willing to withstand the fire to make sure that happens.

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