Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 3/10/2006 [Archive]

Back To Conservatism With Ed Feulner

Ed Feulner: Back to Conservatism

Few conservatives have worked harder to keep the federal government on its constitutional and fiscal leash than Ed Feulner, president of The Heritage Foundation think tank. Feulner, an author and columnist who has been at Heritage for 28 years, is stumping the nation promoting his new book"Getting America Right." He and Doug Wilson, chairman of, wrote it to try to put America back on the right -- i.e., truly conservative -- course. I talked to Feulner Wednesday by telephone from his offices in Washington:

Q: What's your 60-second sound bite of what has gone wrong in Washington?

A: For conservatives this should be the best of times. After all, there's a conservative president, self-proclaimed conservative majorities in the House and Senate. Instead, we're facing problems with illegal immigration. We're facing major problems in terms of federal spending, and our foreign and defense policy is certainly not being explained as clearly as it should be.

All of these things are remediable problems, but at the moment they are not being dealt with very effectively by the political leadership here. And that's what our book tries to answer: How do the American people outside the capital beltway put the right kind of pressure on the members of the House and Senate and president for that matter to do the right thing.

Q: What's your favorite example that symbolizes what has gone wrong?

A: We ask six basic questions people should ask their congressman. One of them is if it's responsible that there is a line-item in the Treasury Department report called 'unreconciled transactions affecting the change in net position' and we find out that that is $24.5 billion that the government knows it's spent, but it doesn't know who it gave it to, where it went, what program authorized it or if a big chunk of it was stolen. Twenty-four billion. That's real money. That's the kind of question we ask in terms of the responsibility of the feds.

Q: You propose some steps to put us back on the right course -- a smaller, more limited government.

A: One that's more consistent with what the Founding Fathers basically had in mind for us 230 years ago and gets us back on track to real constitutional government, and that unifies us again as a people instead of having us being, as Theodore Roosevelt called it,'hyphenated Americans.'

After we ask six simple questions -- "Is federal action necessary? Does this measure promote self-reliance? Is it fiscally responsible?Does it make us more prosperous? Does it make us safer? Does it unify us?" -- we come up with some very specific examples of what can be done about it. We want more transparency. We want earmarks actually labeled with who the sponsor is and who benefits from it. We want the bills to be online for at least 24 hours so real people can go online and look at them. Most importantly, we say that the American people can make a difference.

Q: You say one thing that could be done is turn federal highways over to the states.

A: Absolutely. Refund the 18-cent federal gasoline tax back to the states. Let them decide whether they need a new exit ramp or whether a local highway needs to be fixed instead of going through all this nonsense of federal earmarks and having extra bureaucracies down here in Washington doing it.

Q: Who or what specifically do you blame for this trend toward bigger government?

A: There's plenty of blame to go around. Both sides of the aisle are enamored of pork and increased entitlement spending, which is still where 65 or 58 percent of federal spending goes. But frankly, one of our disappointments is the president. He's the only person around who's been elected by the whole country. He's got to show the kind of national leadership that says, 'When I say I'm going to veto'-- and he has said that now on 133 separate measures -- he means it. When I talk about spending -- and I'm not talking here about spending on national defense, which is the first basic function of the government -- I'm talking about federalizing aid to education through No Child Left Behind and things like that that are not traditional functions of the federal government. This is not what we should b spending money on.

Q: Have true conservatives been too easy on the Bush administration and Rep. Tom DeLay and Sen. Bill Frist?

A: There are a couple parts to that answer. First thing is, it's not all negative. The president to his real credit is giving us some very good judges. Donald Rumsfeld, while he's fighting a war that's pretty difficult to fight, is trying to reform the whole military structure for the future, instead of the kind of battles in the past. You've got the president who in just the last couple days has come down with his proposal for a line-item veto. Both houses have passed bankruptcy reform.

There are a lot of positive things that have gone through the system. But then you look at the big numbers -- whether it's the highway appropriations bill or the one we liked the least, the prescription drug benefit, the largest new entitlement since LBJ. When he first sent it up (to Congress), we said, 'Hey, yeah, this is right on target because it's going to provide prescription drugs for people who really need them." Instead, we're providing prescription drug benefits for Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, which is nonsense.

Q: True conservatives have been railing about the growth of big government at least since A.J. Nock's 'Our Enemy the State' in the 1930s. What makes you think the battle can be won now?

A: I think battles can be won. I don't think the war will ever be won. As long as there is a government, there are constantly going to be efforts by some people to use it to advance their own interests. That's why we on the right, whether we call ourselves conservatives or libertarians, have got to resist those pressures. It's not just back to the Founders; it goes back to the Hayekian view of the Rule of Law, where everybody is treated equally under the rule of law.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at © Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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