Friday, March 24, 2006

The party of unlimited government

Guest post by Right Democrat

(Ed. note: This is the first of what I hope are many guest posts by some of our favourite bloggers, intelligent voices from different corners of the blogosphere. Right Democrat is a blog for "conservative and moderate Democrats" that focuses on "the concerns of working and middle class Americans". The author, who posts by that name, is a social conservative and economic populist. He believes that Democrats must "embrace mainstream values" and again "become the party of working families". I am neither socially conservative nor economically populist, but it is important to listen to and respect different viewpoints within our party, and I think it's important to present some of those viewpoints here at The Reaction. We are, after all, a big tent, and we must remain so. I hope you like this post and I encourage you to check out Right Democrat regularly. -- MJWS)

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Michael Hayes, a professor of political science at Colgate University, has another insightful column at Democrats.US. Dr. Hayes makes an excellent point that Democrats can and should be the party of government activism but all too often are seen instead as the party of "unlimited government." With a growing concentration of power in Washington which has taken place under Republican rule, a case can be made that the Republican Party has become "the party of unlimited government." The Bush Administration and the Republican Congressional leadership have certainly lost all credibility on financial matters and Democrats have the opportunity now to emerge as the party of fiscal responsibility. Still, there are lingering perceptions about Democrats and the role of government that need to be addressed if we are again to become the majority party.

Government plays a critical role in society; however, we need to keep in mind that its powers can be abused and that this important institution exists to serve the public. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi helped to perpetuate stereotypes about our party favoring "unlimited government" when she opposed efforts in Congress to discourage municipalities from using eminent domain to take private homes for economic development following last year's Supreme Court ruling which affirmed such practices. A more appropriate response to the court ruling came from fellow California Democrat Maxine Waters. Representative Waters joined in sponsoring legislation to ban federal Community Development Block Grant funds from any city that fails to prohibit such seizures of private homes for private development purposes. From the Los Angeles Times: "It's like undermining motherhood and apple pie," Waters was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle. "I mean, people's homes and their land -- it's very important, and it should be protected by government, not taken for somebody else's private use."

A knee jerk opposition by Democrats on matters such as experimenting with school vouchers, charter schools, and faith-based initiatives can leave the impression that we are more focused on catering to narrow constituencies than on meeting educational challenges or social services needs in a creative manner.

Democrats also must take the lead in reinventing government to make it more efficient and customer-oriented. For example, there is no reason that government agencies cannot be open more flexible hours to serve the public. One of the 12 points of the U.S. House Blue Dog Coalition is to instill greater accountability in federal agencies. The Blue Dog plan would require agencies to put their fiscal houses in order. According to the non-partisan Government Accounting Office, 16 of 23 major federal agencies cannot issue a simple audit of their books, and the federal government cannot account for $24.5 billion it spent in 2003. The Blue Dogs have proposed a budget freeze for any agency that cannot properly balance its books.

I can think of two Democratic leaders from the past who point the way to how Democrats can support activist and efficient government. The late Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois, a traditional New Deal Democrat, often admonished his colleagues that "to be a liberal, one does not have to be a wastrel. We must, in fact, be thrifty if we are to be really humane." Democrats need to be leading efforts to make government work effectively to provide services and enforce regulations to protect workers and consumers. During his long Senate career, the late Senator William Proxmire was a strong believer in activist government and yet a zealous opponent of bureaucratic waste. Proxmire introduced the "Golden Fleece" awards, which exposed wasteful practices in government. Proxmire noted that "highlighting specific, single wasteful expenditures is more effective than simply complaining in a general way about government waste."

Given the lack of fiscal responsibility and abuse of power by the Republicans, Democrats have the opportunity to make the case that with proper leadership our government can be more responsive to public needs.

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