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Reflections on Dick Armey

By W. James Antle III
web posted December 17, 2001

Last week, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.) became the latest congressional conservative to announce his retirement. Republicans will lose one of their most passionate champions of smaller government and free-market economics at a time when such people are rare in either party.

Although in 2002 Republicans will certainly retain his House seat in a district that is more than two-thirds Republican, Armey will leave Congress at the conclusion of his ninth term. Like the other retiring conservative Texas Republican, Sen. Phil Gramm, Armey was once a free-market college economics professor. He decided to run for Congress in 1984, after C-SPAN led him to conclude he was as qualified as those in the House at the time and that President Ronald Reagan needed reinforcements.

Dick ArmeyWith his trademark wit, Armey ably debunked the misrepresentations of the Reagan economic record by the Keynesian economic forecasters the liberal Democrats hired to run the Congressional Budget Office. He relentlessly pushed for tax cuts, deregulation and spending restraint while challenging the statistics his opponents brandished to justify income redistribution and government micromanagement of the economy. Suffice it to say that George W. Bush was not the first person to call the Democrats on their "fuzzy math."

Walter Williams, nationally syndicated columnist and past chairman of the George Mason University economics department, has said that Armey is one of the few members of Congress the Founder Fathers would actually approve of. Indeed, during his 17-year congressional career he has been willing to challenge many sacrosanct notions from the inviolability of federal education spending to the feasibility of the current Social Security system. He did not use his political power to gain pork barrel projects for his constituents like Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W. VA.) but to work for less government.

Yet Armey was able work with Democratic members of Congress as well as Republicans. Working with former Congressman Ron Dellums (D-CA) and the late Joe Moakley (D-MA), he crafted the first military base closure legislation and in the process was able to save taxpayers $4 billion a year. He also challenged farm state Republicans on farm subsidies, which he compared to Soviet-era central planning, and promoted legislation reducing them alongside urban liberals like then-Rep. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Congressman Barney Franks (D-MA).

He broke with the first Bush White House in resisting any compromise on the "no-new-taxes" pledge. He fought against the 1990 tax-rate increase with the same gusto he brought to the battle against the 1993 Clinton tax increase, presciently calling the negotiations with congressional Democrats that produced it "the pre-plummet summit." (Shortly afterward, the bottom fell out of the economy and the once-popular George H.W. Bush was defeated in the 1992 presidential election.)

As early as 1994, while still chairman of the House Republican Conference, Armey was touting a flat tax as part of his Freedom and Fairness Restoration Act. With the median-income family paying more in taxes than for food, clothing, transportation and shelter combined and 5.4 billion hours being wasted on compliance with a complex, burdensome tax system something had to give. Though not as good as the Liberty Amendment sponsored by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), which would repeal the 16th Amendment and abolish the federal income tax entirely, Armey's bill had considerable merit.

By enacting a low 17 percent uniform tax rate, Armey's flat tax plan would abolish graduated personal income tax rates, the capital gains tax and tax penalties against savings in one fell swoop. It would not just simplify taxes but would lower marginal income tax rates at a time when we are faced with a tax system that costs the economy $1.39 for each additional $1 in revenue it earns the government. Running on a version of this plan, even the unglamorous political novice Steve Forbes was able to make a name for himself in the 1996 Republican presidential race. Since first unveiling his flat-tax proposal, Armey has traveled to more than 40 cities and spoken to over 50,000 people to make the case for fundamental tax reform.

Armey has similarly called for sunset provisions on all government programs except for earned entitlements, a "regulatory budget" that would summarize the economic cost of federal regulations and otherwise returning resources from Washington to their rightful owners, families and taxpayers throughout the United States. He managed to succeed Jack Kemp as Congress' leading supply-sider without abandoning the budget frugality needed to preserve low taxes, something Kemp had decried as "root-canal politics."

Few congressmen possess Armey's knack for pithy phrases that summarize the absurdity of the political class. He contrasted the "invisible foot" of government with the "invisible hand" Adam Smith described as guiding the free market. He noted that "compassion without understanding can be cruel." He also stated, "A bad idea can only survive if it need not stand the test of reality."

Armey also lampooned liberal sacred cows, including the Clintons, telling Democrats that "your president doesn't matter very much to us" when they used loyalty to the president as a reason for passing bad legislation and standing up to Hillary Clinton during the national health care debacle.

There were some negative moments in Armey's career as well, such as the "Barney Fag" incident and the coup attempt against then-Speaker Newt Gingrich. But Armey was second only to Gingrich in his role in crafting the Contract With America that helped Republicans win control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years and a political legacy that included the first major federal tax cuts since 1981 and the farthest-reaching welfare reform legislation ever. When other conservative Republicans were obsessed with their hero worship of Gingrich, this writer was more pleased by Armey's ascendancy.

No political victories are permanent and each movement requires new leaders for new generations. Challenges change with times. The retirement of Dick Armey will likely be the beginning of something new rather than simply the end of his career. Yet we should remember his career as one dedicated to principles of freedom those who follow him should remain true to.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at wjantle@enterstageright.com.

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