Just before the New Year, the big topics in Washington were Tom DeLay’s imbroglio and, not coincidentally, the rules that govern Congressional ethics. But Sheila Cole was focused on another set of rules. From her perch as executive director of the Republican Study Committee, the largest caucus on the Hill, she was drafting proposals to change the way the House of Representatives spends money. Her ideas are the stuff of dreams for small-government conservatives: If enacted, they would severely constrict spending in Washington. In some respects, they would radically change the way government does business.
It’s probably too much to call Cole a rebel. But then again, maybe not. She talks openly about slashing government by the billions, and quotes Samuel Adams at the end of her emails. “It does not take a majority to prevail,” one reads, “but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.” Of course, Cole does not work for the minority party but for the majority–and yet she is no less incendiary as a result.
The RSC represents the conservative wing of the Republican party, and currently claims as members close to 100 of the 232 Republicans in the House. Yet it hasn’t shied from targeting its own party’s legislation on limited-government principles. Cole’s boss, Indiana Republican Mike Pence, voted against both the prescription-drug bill and the No Child Left Behind law.
“This White House will have a more difficult time convincing conservative members to vote for more government,” Pence told reporters a few months ago. And, on another occasion, he said, “I come at this job trying to form a record and a reputation as a thoughtful conservative [who] makes a conscientious effort to vote his conservative values, even if that means opposing members of my own party.”
So the revolutionary idea seems to be that if you’re a fiscal conservative, you should vote like one. Cole’s job is to help Republicans do just that. And members often say they will. The problem is getting them to keep their promises.
When I first meet Cole in early December, she is rushing as Hill aides do from Union Station to her office in a corner of the Cannon House Office Building, cell phone in hand, to direct the day’s work at the RSC. Her job is to oversee operations and correspond with the group’s members and their staffers, each of whom look to her for talking points, research, and guidance on upcoming legislation.
Cole has the kempt, eager demeanor of the industrious Hill wonk, the earnest young expert on telecom policy or immigration reform. Like many people on the Hill, she guards her availability jealously when members are in town and keeps an orderly office to handle the legislative branch’s voluminous paper flow. But unlike most of her peers, Cole gravitates toward the divisive social issues that make many career-minded Washington policy types blanch.
When I ask her to describe her background and views, the Columbus, Ohio, native begins with some early highlights in which she fought to restrain not spending but libertinism. As an undergraduate at Notre Dame, she took up battle against political correctness and campus anti-Catholicism, an increasingly prominent trend on Catholic campuses. She was a political philosophy major and founding staffer of the conservative student journal Right Reason, whose mission, according to an editorial statement, was to “persuade, exhort, and lead the Notre Dame community towards the vision of greatness that it no longer understands or appreciates.”
As an investigative writer, Cole broke the story that Notre Dame intended to hire a pro-choice chair for its philosophy department (the offer was rescinded). She also uncovered a student initiative to establish a gay and lesbian campus group affiliated with a national leftist gay rights group (it failed). Under the guidance of her brother, Daniel P. Moloney, the founder of Right Reason, currently a lecturer at Princeton and a contributor to Crisis, First Things, and National Review, she tried to shine a light on some of the more flagrant contradictions between Notre Dame’s Catholic principles and instances of laissez-faire or anti-ecclesiastical thinking among students and faculty.
After college came a stint with Policy Review magazine, where Cole began taking an interest in fiscal and regulatory issues. In 1996, she published “The Lady in Red Tape,” which uncovered several examples of businesswomen suffering under the heavy hand of government regulation. In one case, Judy Hooper, an Illinois bakery proprietor, was fined $13,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a Labor Department agency, for “failing to warn employees about the dangers of dishwasher fluid.”
After Policy Review, Cole moved back into social issues, working for pro-life and family issues groups, specifically Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and the Family Research Council.
These days, Cole herself is the lady in red tape. She has been elbow-deep in “good government” measures to curb waste, enrich debate on bills in Congress, and cut spending. At a staff meeting in early January, Cole explained her proposals to 200 or so aides crowded into a hall in the Cannon Office Building. The mostly technical and procedural measures boiled down to eight proposals in total. The most significant were: a provision to require roll call votes on any legislation costing more than $50 million, a repeal of the “Gephardt Rule,” which raises the debt ceiling automatically to conform to ever-higher budgets, a proposal to require every bill to be accompanied by cost estimates, and one to create a rainy day fund for non-military emergencies. Each was designed to make Congress more frugal.
Not one of which passed. Or, that is, none of the significant ones. In a closed-door session the first week of January, the Republican House leadership killed most of these proposals. The one measure that did make it through was purely symbolic. All it did was allow congressmen to use the term “Senate” in floor debates. They couldn’t do this previously. Instead, they used phrases like “the other chamber” when talking about senators or their legislation. But that was it. Belt-tightening in this Republican Congress will have to wait.
There’s an argument to be made that the proposals wouldn’t have done much good anyhow. “These rules would completely tie up the government,” says one longtime Republican staffer who asked not to be named. There are reasons to think he is right. Take the requirement for roll call votes on bills above $50 million, for instance. The government spends that amount on thousands of projects each year. The beauty and the impracticality of Sheila’s proposal is that it would require every member of the House to cast a separate vote for each of every one of these projects. In 2004, the government spent $50 million on an indoor rain forest in Coralville, Iowa. In 2000 it spent $50 million for a highway upgrade outside Los Angeles. Clearly Congress can’t vote on all these projects. Can it?
Not really, and Cole knows this. The point of her proposals is to prevent such projects from being tabled in the first place. Her work has succeeded, however, in getting people to think, for a moment, about fiscal responsibility. Which is not nothing. On the upside, there’s more and more talk about a rainy-day fund. What’s more, RSC leaders are vowing to challenge some of the more expensive parts of the 2003 Medicare bill.
But so far no pork has been cut. Asked to comment on that fact, Cole seemed mostly unfazed, pointing to opportunities in the coming months to push the fiscal conservative agenda anew.
Her optimism is admirable. Especially when you consider how formidable a task it is to restrain spending under a Congressional leadership and a president who have overseen the greatest government expansion since LBJ. Maybe it’s true that Cole’s limited-government proposals will keep foundering on the rocks of old-fashioned politics and practicality. But she plans to keep on trying.
Brendan Conway is an editorial writer at the Washington Times and associate editor of Doublethink.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Jacob Hayutin