To Fix What's Broken in Congress, Start 'Small'

The former Speaker of the House says his party is in danger of losing the moral high ground on Capitol Hill. He calls on fellow Republicans to embrace reform, and to return to a vision of smaller government.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A former leader of the House Republicans warns that his party is losing the moral high ground. Newt Gingrich led Republicans to power in 1994. He did it in part by attacking corruption among Democrats. Within a few years, Gingrich himself faced an ethics investigation. This morning, Newt Gingrich has some thoughts about today's lawmakers.

NEWT GINGRICH:

We've all heard the phrase, `Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.' A variation for the current scandals rocking Washington could be, `Big government tends to corrupt, but government with no party willing to limit its growth is absolutely corrupting.'

The Founding Fathers knew this. Madison, Jefferson and Hamilton would not be surprised to find corruption in a federal government with so much power that an interest group would spend $80 million to hire a fixer. They would have expected it. So they wrote a Constitution designed to produce effective, strong, but limited, government.

Jack Abramoff's lawbreaking is only a symptom of a deeper perversion of power in Washington. Politicians of both parties have enshrined in law a self-perpetuating incumbency-protection racket. Although corrupt in nature, this racket is nonetheless legal because Congress makes the law. Here's how it works. Lobbyists attend fund-raisers for incumbents so incumbents can create campaign war chests that convince challengers not to run, thus freeing up incumbents to spend more time at Washington fund-raisers. And with their re-elections on the line and their lobbyist friends to keep happy, House and Senate members find it impossible to say no to special interests. So they keep spending, bloating the federal government with pet projects and special deals, which in turn attracts more money into lobbying and interest groups.

The nation's Capitol is the center of government power, and it is paid for by the American people. Yet too many politicians are scheduling the people's business around their fund-raising opportunities. There is no good reason to raise money in Washington, DC, and this practice should be banned. Period.

No party is solely responsible for corruption. But Republicans, who came to power in Congress in 1994 as the party of reform, have a special obligation to act. We must reclaim the high ground of reform, for both the future of our party and the good of our nation. After all, Republicans aren't supposed to be the party of pork. We're the party of the people, who actually pay for the pork. And what's going on in Washington today not only offends our principals, it betrays the moral basis of our self-government.

Ronald Reagan used to say that there are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. The simple, but not necessarily easy way out of the current troubles begins with shrinking the size of the federal government. As long as government is this big, spends this much and is this powerful, no law or regulation can hold back the tide of corrupting influences. And by all means, those who are guilty in the current scandals should go to jail, but don't let that fool you into believing the problem is solved. The wisdom of the founders is more relevant today than ever. Big government tends to corrupt, and bipartisan big government corrupts absolutely.

INSKEEP: Commentary from Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives. His most recent book is called "Winning the Future: 21st Century Contract With America."

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