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Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.
Recently, I’ve come to a realization: Genuine conservative philosophy is at a structural disadvantage in American government, as the system is basically set up to always reward those who want government to grow, and budgets to expand.
What am I talking about? Well, think of it this way: There are essentially four different arrangements that are possible in our government.
In the first, Democrats control everything and can safely ignore the Republicans with no consequences. The best example of this would be the current structure of Maine government, with a Democratic governor, and very comfortable majorities in the state House and state Senate.
In the second, Democrats control most of the government, but are limited in some ways, necessitating compromise with the Republicans to get things done. This is the current situation in Washington, given the power that the filibuster gives to Senate Republicans.
In the third, Republicans control most of the government, but are limited in the same ways as the previous example. This is what the government looks like nearly all of the time when Republican presidents are in the White House, either from one of the chambers of Congress being controlled by Democrats, or the aforementioned filibuster.
Then there is the fourth and rarest arrangement, when Republicans control absolutely everything and can safely ignore the Democrats. We haven’t seen this on the federal level since Herbert Hoover, though here in Maine we did technically see this in Gov. Paul LePage’s first two years in office. It is important to note, though, that Republican legislative leaders chose not to govern in a heavy handed way, instead seeking bipartisan compromise on most legislation, including the budget.
Out of the four, this last one is the only real opportunity for advocates of limited government to make real progress on their agenda. Unfortunately, usually when this happens the right-wing politicians in office are usually too corrupt, inept or spineless to achieve any meaningful victories.
For the other three, Democrats — who generally want to grow the government and spend more money — get to make progress toward their goals. In the first, Democrats get to do whatever it is they want, which is exactly what the Democrats did in Maine earlier this year when they rammed through a partisan budget that once again raised spending.
If you doubt that, just look at what is currently happening with the “infrastructure spending” bill in Congress. Democrats want a multi-trillion dollar package and Republicans don’t want anything at all. But in the end, though, the Republicans know that the Democrats can use budget reconciliation to pass their dream bill, and will participate in a “compromise” to make the insane slightly less insane, thus Democrats will get a slightly smaller version of what they want.
In the third example, the same thing happens. If you look back to the debate over the COVID relief bill at the end of last year, you see this clearly. Despite untold trillions having already been spent, congressional Republicans were willing to consider a new bill that would spend roughly $500 billion on a supposedly “targeted relief bill.” Democrats, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were insisting on a package of $2.2 trillion. Ultimately, the push and pull of compromise gave us a $900 billion bill.
In each of these scenarios, those of us who demand smaller government and less spending will get nothing, and in fact will lose ground. And as I said, even when we (rarely) get a real chance to shrink the government, it never happens anyway. Thus, we seem to always lose, even when we win elections.
I say all this to put in context the news this week that legislative Republicans were working with their Democratic counterparts in Augusta to craft a compromise budget deal that may possibly include a minor tax break that would allow Republicans to claim a small victory.
But if they ultimately end up supporting a compromise deal, Republicans will once again have been complicit in passing Democratic priorities, and will leave their fingerprints on said “compromise,” undermining their own ability to argue against it in the future.
Is the token bone that is to be thrown to the GOP caucus enough to raise your hand and say “I agree with this?” For me, it would not be, and I would not be party to the supplemental budget. With or without a deal between the parties, the Democrats will get nearly all of what they want, so why give your blessing to that?
Put another way, if you are going to lose this fight either way, you might as well lose it with integrity and stand firmly for your ideas, and against the preposterous leviathan of government that Gov. Janet Mills and her allies in Augusta have created.