With small budgets of their own, groups cheer push to cut spending

Though they lack billable clients and success fees, small-government lobbyists are thriving on the resurgent congressional debate over offsets for federal spending, with many anti-pork groups emboldened by internal GOP rifts.

The Republican Study Committee (RSC) thrilled the limited-government lobby by suggesting a menu of discretionary programs to which deficit-wary lawmakers could consider cuts. While few if any items on the slate face realistic threats, the RSC’s willingness to frustrate party leadership has given hope to traditionally right-leaning opponents of pork.

“It’s something leadership is going to have to pay more attention to now, and in the future,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR). “In the past they’ve been able to say, ‘Total spending’s not a problem.’ Total spending is the measure of what’s going right and going wrong.”

Norquist has joined fellow fiscal conservatives in offering proposals to help stem the spending tide that has steadily risen since Hurricane Katrina rocked the Gulf Coast. His pitch, for an offsets commission in the mold of the independent base-closings panel, is among the newest on a list of spending solutions pushed by small-government lobbyists that at times can read like a greatest-hits compilation of 1990s Republicanism.

Anti-pork lobbyists hope to revive the balanced-budget constitutional amendment, which failed by one vote eight years ago and now boasts more than 125 co-sponsors. Also, Sens. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) and George Allen (R-Va.), a 2008 presidential hopeful, will introduce an amendment of their own today to restore the president’s line-item veto power.

“The composition of the Supreme Court is very much changing these days,” decreasing the likelihood that the justices would strike down the line-item veto a second time, noted Club for Growth President Pat Toomey, who as a former member does not actively lobby Congress. “It’s very much worth revisiting. The big question is if Congress is willing to concede power to the executive. It would be a big change.”

Small-government lobbying rarely occurs in the traditional mode of K Street, largely because of the groups’ limited resources and membership united along solely ideological lines. While the annual lobbying budget of even midsize businesses often tops $1 million, the National Taxpayers Union (NTU) spent less than $175,000 to lobby in 2004.

Pete Sepp, a lobbyist and spokesman for the NTU, agreed with Norquist and others that heightened pressure on leadership is a victory for small-government lobbyists. “This is one of the first issues to come along in quite a while that has the moral authority to move limited government forward on all fronts. … There is outright criticism and a newfound voice on behalf of fiscal restraint,” Sepp said.

Sepp pointed to the House Rules Committee’s rejection of Rep. Jeb Hensarling’s (R-Texas) proposed offset amendment to the second hurricane supplemental bill as “the biggest slap in the face” to the small-government movement and a foreshadowing of the later RSC rebellion.

Their unique predicament leads the NTU and its cohorts to concentrate on grassroots action rather than insider access. Tom Schatz, head of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), ruffled congressional feathers by urging lawmakers to sign a “no-pork pledge” in the wake of Katrina and prodding House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) with letters from some constituents offering to give back the $315 million Young had earmarked for an infamous “bridge to nowhere.”

“You can’t talk about offsets until you talk about supplementals,” Schatz said. “Tsunami relief, the Iraq war, [lawmakers] have added stuff” to several recent pre-hurricane supplementals that does not relate to the emergency need at hand, Schatz added. He cited the Louisiana delegation’s $250 billion Gulf Coast rebuilding package as a magnet for unnecessary spending.

Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), who now marshals opposition to excess spending through the conservative activist group FreedomWorks, said the RSC’s rabble-rousing eventually could pay dividends for the now-divided House GOP.

“If the RSC stands together and stands fast, then the leadership in the House basically has the trump card,” Armey said. “We had a large ’95 class, and they represented a bloc of votes that enabled me to go into negotiations with the Senate and the White House and say, ‘You can’t bring this to floor and pass it,’ and they believed it.”

Like other influential members of the small-government community, FreedomWorks is not registered to lobby. But the presence of multiple cheering members at the RSC’s offset event allowed the group to come to the fore of the anti-pork debate, and Armey challenged the notion of lobbying as a task only performed by paid advocates in suits.

“It’s lobbying in its most basic form,” Armey said of FreedomWorks’ activities. “It makes a big difference when our members show up.”