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Jewish World Review March 31, 2004 / 8 Nissan, 5764

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Congress must come to terms ... ten minutes with Rep. Dick Armey | Congressman Dick Armey of Texas played a major role in the "Republican Revolution" of 1994 that gave his party control of the House of Representatives for the first time in four decades.

The former House Majority Leader, who retired in 2002, was a powerful force for limited government, lower taxes, fiscal responsibility and more individual freedom for 18 years. Known for his bipartisanship and his principles, the economics professor crafted legislation that closed 100 obsolete military bases, worked hard to support NAFTA, and was the chief author of the Contract With America.

Armey is now co-chairman of Citizens for a Sound Economy (, a Washington-based, grass-roots citizens group in favor of limited government and free markets that works for a flat tax, Social Security reform and school choice. I talked to him by cell phone on Thursday from Denton County, Texas, near Dallas:

Q: We've got unfunded liabilities for Social Security and Medicare totaling $72 trillion. We've got deficits, increased federal spending. Are you depressed?

A: No, I'm not. Medicare probably depresses me more than Social Security. We know how we can fix Social Security. We can turn Social Security into good news with personal retirement accounts. While Medicare still is a horrible nightmare, at least we can fix Social Security.

On the question of deficits and the size of the budget, sooner or later Congress is going to have to come to terms with cutting spending and reviewing programs and seeing what it can eliminate.

Q: Do Republicans have the will to do this? Is this something they just can't do right now, or is it something they've lost the will to do?

A: Well, the biggest problem we have is that even with the Republican majority, and even when I was there with our Republican majority right after the "Revolution of '94," you still always have a majority of Congress that wants to spend more money. That pretty well includes all of the Senate, Republican moderates in the House, all appropriators and probably all Democrats.

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It took an extremely rigorous and tough leadership hand to hold down spending for the first years, but after 9/11, the ethic of controlling spending just was lost. It has to be reclaimed.

Q: When you first ran for Congress, what were your personal goals?

A: My personal goals were to cut the size of government, fix the tax system, fix the tort laws and reduce government regulation of the private sector of the economy.

Q: Do you feel that you achieved enough of them, any of them, all of them?

A: No. I think my personal accomplishments in Congress all look in that direction, but we've not done what we should be doing as a national government. We've still moved in essentially the same direction that the liberals were moving us into in the Great Society and the years beyond.

We've probably done a little bit better than Ronald Reagan was able to do as Republican president with a Democrat Congress, but we're nowhere near what we need to do. We should have a simple, decent, honest retirement system and tax system and a much smaller government. There's an enormous amount of work left to be done.

Politics vs. policy

Q: When you see now what the Bush administration is doing with the deficits and prescription drug plan, are you optimistic that the administration will be able to right itself?

A: I think that President Bush, particularly with Medicare prescription drugs, is letting the political people define policy objectives. I said at that time, and I say now, that I think it is going to be a wrong decision, both with respect to politics and policy. The president is going to get a political negative out of it, and an enormous policy negative.

But I do believe that the president has the correct instincts. Once he is re-elected and beyond politics, and never having to face another election in his life, I'm optimistic that he will show the kind of creative, disciplined leadership that we have a right to expect from him.

Q: What about his foreign policy and social policy? Are you critical of the administration on anything?

A: Again, I'm proud that when we suffered the 9/11 attack, he stepped right up and said, "We're going to go get these guys," and said to the world, "You can come along or not, but we're going after them." I think that's what we had to do.

I always had my own doubts and reservations about the war against Iraq, and yet you can't escape being optimistic that you've rid the world of a tyrant like Saddam Hussein. I've got mixed emotions on that.

On the social policy, I think he's been very good on the real issues of the heart — things like right to life and protecting our right to practice our Christian faith — or any faith in this country.

I've been a little bit surprised at some of the social policy moves he's made, most notably, continuing AmeriCorp, which is a dumb idea, and his desire to patronize the arts with the taxpayers' money. Both of these baffle me. They're not the acts of a good conservative.

Q: What are the most important and most realistic goals of the Citizens for a Sound Economy?

A: I think you always have to put within the context of the day you're working on it. Today, and for the next few years, the most imperative thing we've got to do is get private retirement accounts and to replace this Social Security system that is headed for the rocks.

Social Security, if we leave it alone, will be greatest financial disaster in the history of the world. Private retirement accounts will not only avoid that disaster, but give everyone in America the chance to own a part of this great country and to manage their own retirement security. That's our first priority.

Toomey vs. Specter

Q: You probably know Congressman Pat Toomey pretty well?

A: Yes, I do. I know him extremely well.

Q: As you know he's challenging Sen. Arlen Specter in a primary next month. We support Toomey, editorially. We find it troubling that the GOP hierarchy is really going all out for Specter. The president stuck up for him. Rick Santorum did an ad for Specter.

A: Yeah, the Toomey-Specter race is a very good illustration of a distinction that I don't think we often make, which is a distinction between the party regulars and the conservative base. Toomey is the candidate of the conservative base, and people like myself appreciate him — frankly, we cherish him — because he is so much not an establishment member of Congress but a man of creative thinking and assertive work skills who really is trying to make this government smaller and more effective.

Specter is an establishment guy, and the party faithful is going to support Specter principally because he's the guy that's in. But if you want the government to change direction, then you've got to be willing to change the personnel in the government.

Q: Any predictions?

A: Well, Toomey is a hard campaigner, and he'll probably get a lot of good, grass-roots work. Specter will have all the advantages of the incumbent and the establishment. My guiding light has always been since my own race in 1984 that "Hard work beats Daddy's money," and that could be what happens in this race.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald