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 Washington Notebook

January 5, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 1

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


The Republican Party "needs to rediscover the principles of limited government" and step away from the "dangerous and unchartered waters of big government Republicanism."

- Congressman Mike Pence, R-Ind.


Red state Rep. Mike Pence mixes amiability with conservatism

By Joe Feuerherd

Rep. Mike Pence is as Red State as it gets. The Indiana Republican's official biography notes that Pence is "a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order."

That he hosted a radio talk show in the nation's heartland for eight years before winning election on his third try in 2000, and that prior to that he ran the Indiana Policy Review Foundation (which exists to "exalt the truths of the Declaration of Independence, especially as they apply to the interrelated freedoms of religion, property and speech") might lead the casual Blue State observer to conclude that Pence is, well, a yahoo. A Bible thumping holier-than-thou representative of an America sophisticated bi-coastal types don't recognize.

That caricature, however comforting, is mistaken. An ideologue? Perhaps. But the soft-spoken Pence, 45, is no yahoo.

In fact, the prematurely gray three-term congressman demonstrated a wry sense of humor and a healthy view of current Capitol Hill controversies at an informal Jan. 5 breakfast with a dozen Washington reporters. He takes the issues, though not himself, seriously. Which is an accomplishment in itself, particularly because Pence -- leader of the 100-plus member House Republican Study Committee (RSC) -- may prove to be one of the most important members of Congress over the next two years, in addition to being a not-insignificant thorn in the side of Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Tom Delay and President George W. Bush.

As the unanimously elected RSC chairman, Pence represents a breed of Republican not in favor with the big spenders of the current administration. "Reagan proved deficits don't matter," Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly told former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.

Pence, by contrast, not only says he opposes "big government," he actually votes that way. He opposed the Republican-backed Medicare prescription drug benefit (the "entitlement" portion of which he's hoping to repeal this year), he voted against the "No Child Left Behind Act" (which sought "to make Washington, D.C., a national board of education") and regrets his support for the $462 billion farm bill.

Principle, however, doesn't necessarily come cheap. The House leadership, Hastert and Delay, reward their friends and punish those who stray.

His opposition to a gas tax hike to fund transportation improvements, he joked, was "totally unrelated" to the miniscule allocation his congressional district received in the 2004 appropriations bill.

Meanwhile, Pence is planning to offer a proposal to have the federal government establish a "rainy-day fund" -- money that would be used to deal with emergencies. For the past century, he said, the United State typically has experienced three to four hurricanes annually. "We budget for one" and then approve an emergency appropriation to meet the needs resulting from the two, three or four that inevitably hit.

Likewise, noted Pence, the $2.2 billion Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is typically funded with an "emergency" appropriation. "By definition it is an emergency that it gets cold in the Northeast every winter."

The anti-government House members took their first shot Jan. 4 when, before the closed-door Republican caucus, they proposed 10 new House rules designed to limit spending. Hastert and Delay beat back the effort, which, says Pence, he expected. The aim, he told the press, was not necessarily to win, but "to begin the argument on budget process reform. We put the [Republican] conference on notice."

During Bush's first term, says Pence, Republicans -- supportive of the president's response to September 11 and the war in Iraq -- gave the administration the benefit of most every doubt. Those days, he cautioned, are over. The party, he says, "needs to rediscover the principles of limited government" and step away from the "dangerous and unchartered waters of big government Republicanism."

The 1986 Indiana Law School graduate prognosticated:

  • Conservatives in the House will support "the big three" items on the administration's agenda: private accounts for Social Security, overhaul of the IRS, and restrictions on liability claims.
  • A constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman will be considered.
  • Anti-abortion measures will highlight "fetal pain" and "parents' rights."
  • Legislation to allow churches to engage in partisan political activity will be a priority.
  • He's "deeply ambivalent" about immigration legislation, though he clearly leans toward the president's relatively liberal stance over the "load 'em up" and send them back home position of many House Republicans.

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Pence won 67 percent of the vote last November in his east central Indiana district, up from just 51 percent in 2000. His conservative economic views -- free trade and less government -- are not universally popular in the district, which, between 1975-95, was represented by a Democrat. It is his "traditional moral values" positions on abortion, marriage and other social issues that lead the district's "Reagan Democrats" to overwhelmingly vote for him, says Pence.

Pence in many ways personifies the Red State Republicans whose influence will be felt both within their own party and on the national stage for decades to come. Whether they ultimately grab control of the real power in Congress remains to be seen. But don't underestimate the possibility.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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