TX-4: Conservative Means What Conservatives Say

US Capitol Building

Originally posted May 14, 2012 at Ramparts360

When conservatism wasn’t cool, and a politician called himself conservative, you could believe him, like when Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness told a Chicago beat cop he was a federal agent. Why would he lie about something so disgraceful?

But today, with conservative voters flooding the GOP primaries, everybody’s a conservative. A hard look at some Congressmen’s records suggests the word has lost some of its value along with its taint.

District 4 Congressman Ralph Hall, for example, touts the C-word repeatedly in his campaign materials. But his voting record tells a different story.

The Numbers

Conservative watchdog groups such as the American Conservative Union (ACU) score each Congressmen’s votes relative to a 100 percent “perfect” record – which few of them achieve. As of 2011, the average lifetime ACU rating for a GOP House Member from Texas was 92.1 percent. Sixteen-term Rep. Hall is third-lowest among those, at 84.55 percent. (Source)

That alone should get the attention of District 4’s GOP primary voters. To be fair, Rep. Hall’s record has improved since he switched parties in 2004. However, he’s still well below the average for Texas Republicans, and average hasn’t been good enough to stop the federal government’s growth. His record confirms that big spending is a priority for him. The first element in that is his votes regarding the federal debt limit.

Hall served during the 12 years of ostensibly conservative GOP control of the U.S. House (1995-2006). In that time, Congress added almost $6 trillion to our national debt. This could not have happened without specific votes to extend the debt limit. Rep. Hall voted on five of six occasions to raise that limit. [Editor: Chart is pasted at bottom.] Of course, so did most of the ruling Republicans. But when Democrats took over in 2007, a curious thing happened. Hall started voting against raising the debt limit – five times in a row. Not surprisingly those votes had no effect because the Democrats who controlled the House voted the other way. But Rep. Hall could claim he was trying to hold the line on federal debt, while the Democrats were running wild.

It should be obvious that Congressmen who play this game aren’t serious about fiscal conservatism. That unseriousness has resulted in nearly $16 trillion in federal debt, not all of it added under Democrat control. Conservatives can complain all they want about how liberals don’t seem to care about spending. But what should we think about Republicans who, when they have an opportunity to stop the madness, don’t even try?

Earmark RePork Card

Another element belying Rep. Hall’s claim to conservatism is his appetite for earmarks. In recent years, voters have wised up to the congressional ploy called earmarking, and watchdogs like the Club for Growth have led the way in exposing this. Hall earned a failing grade on the Club’s 2007 “RePORK Card” by voting against 34 of 50 amendments offered to strip wasteful spending from authorization bills.

In 2009, perhaps hearing the Tea Party’s thunder, Rep. Hall raised his score to a middling 58 percent. Still, Rep. Hall voted in favor of $2 billion for the Democrats’ 2009 “Cash for Clunkers” program, which conservatives correctly foresaw as a boondoggle. Other wasteful votes over the years include the $454 million “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska (2005); federal funding for the Bronx Council of the Arts (2006); and federal funding for the Southern and Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development Association (2006).

These couldn’t be defended as benefitting District 4, or even Texas. However, in 2007, Rep. Hall added $100,000 to an Economic Development Grant to build a “cotton museum” in Greenville, Texas. When Rep. Hall switched parties in 2004, he told the Associated Press in 2004 that GOP leaders had recently refused to place money for his district in a spending bill, and “the only reason I was given was I was a Democrat.” Was the cotton museum one of the causes Rep. Hall switched parties to protect? Conservatives appalled by Sen. Harry Reid’s defense of his federally funded “cowboy poetry festival” should take note.

A long time ago, when the federal budget was nearly balanced, Congressmen could argue that earmarks and pork-barrel projects were merely a means of ensuring their district got its “fair share” of the federal pie. But with the federal debt at $15.6 trillion, Congress has spent all of today’s money, along with most of the next generation’s inheritance, and now it’s running up debt for people not yet old enough to vote.

It’s fair to say the federal debt will outlive Rep. Hall at this point. He’s been in Congress for 32 years, which would be a blessing if he were doing what the country needs: stopping the fiscal binge before it harms more than our bond rating.

But a record like his indicates that he’s not serious. Furthermore, senior committee members such as Rep. Hall have ways of showing Tea Party-inspired freshmen who really controls Washington.

Game Change

For the first time in years, Rep. Hall has a credible challenger in the primary. Already this season, voters have taken down several incumbents in lightly attended primary elections. For most Congressional districts, the primary provides the only such opportunity. Districts such as TX-4 have been drawn “deep red” for GOP control. For these, November is a foregone conclusion; the real election happens in May.

Michael Smith is an activist with the Campaign for Primary Accountability

Here are details of Rep. Hall’s voting record mentioned in this article.