Political irony has experienced a profound illustration in the early days of the Obama administration. Seldom has a president rendered such thoughtful tribute to a predecessor whose values his every legislative effort was certain to undermine.
Case in point: Two events on Capitol Hill earlier this month were coordinated to honor the life and legacy of Ronald Reagan. At a signing ceremony in the White House Diplomatic Room, President Obama authorized a centennial commission to plan for the former president’s 100th birthday celebration in 2011. The very next day, hundreds of members of Congress were on hand for the unveiling of a statue of Mr. Reagan that will grace the Capitol Rotunda.
“President Reagan helped as much as any president to restore a sense of optimism in our country, a spirit that transcended politics,” Mr. Obama said. “It was this optimism that the American people sorely needed during a difficult period – a period of economic and global challenges that tested us in unprecedented ways.”
But the instructive lessons of the Reagan era are not as much about the former president’s style and charm as about his ideas. They are more substantive, more enduring. Mr. Reagan embodied a firm commitment to a simple political idea expressed in a straightforward syllogism: “Man is not free unless government is limited; as government expands, liberty contracts.”
In the past few months, the country has witnessed an alarming expansion of the federal government and its unprecedented power grab in whole sectors of the economy. American taxpayers are the not-so-proud owners of bankrupt auto manufacturers, mortgage lenders, investment banks and insurance providers.
The impulse toward federal control is ever present in a system such as ours, but it is especially aggressive during times of protracted economic crisis. Well-intentioned politicians, feeling pressure to harness the free market and direct the economy away from a second Great Depression, fall prey to the erroneous notion that government is better equipped than the private sector to create jobs, facilitate entrepreneurial innovation and generate wealth.
In contrast to Mr. Reagan, they think government is the solution to the problem.
Consider the way the federal government has been reporting and tracking stimulus expenditures. Once in office, Mr. Obama pushed for a record $787 billion with the promise of an “unprecedented level of transparency.” If the president discovered taxpayer money was misspent, he promised to “call it out and publicize it.”
So the administration launched a Web site, www.recovery.gov, and the president appointed Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to lead a task force designed for efficient reporting and maximum transparency. Now in its third month, the site is a major disappointment. Reports are lagging behind, and taxpayers are complaining that they cannot track recovery funds from beginning to end as the Obama administration pledged.
The cost for this failure? A whopping $84 million, not including the potential cost of waste, fraud and abuse that inadequate reporting encourages, an amount government officials say could reach $55 billion.
The private sector, on the other hand, is faring better than the Washington bureaucracy. For instance, a Seattle-based company, Onvia Inc., launched its own site, www.recovery.org, using an Internet search technology 10 years in the making that tracks and publishes government spending in up-to-the-minute detail. Onvia’s success – seen in the fact that 13 of its top 15 site visitors come from government agencies – has again proved one of Mr. Reagan’s dictums: “The best minds are not in government … if any were, business would hire them away.”
If the federal government can’t keep pace with the private sector in something as simple as building a Web site to track stimulus spending, how can we expect it to run billion-dollar multinational insurance giants, the American auto industry and the world’s largest investment banks to boot?
Mr. Reagan knew too well the power of the private sector and the corollary inadequacies of government. He also knew that federal programs, once launched, have a nasty way of expanding in perpetuity. “A government bureau,” the Gipper once quipped, “is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on earth.”
Today’s leaders would do well to mirror Mr. Reagan’s principles as much as they memorialize his legacy.
Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, is the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.