Renewing Our Commitment to Limited Government

I AM DEEPLY HUMBLED to deliver the Krieble Lecture at the Heritage Foundation’s Resource Bank meeting today. Robert Krieble’s dogged advancement of the principles of freedom in the Soviet Union sowed the seeds that felled that wall and I am honored to speak in his memory.

Picture, if you will, a ship at sea. Shoulders back, a proud captain steps onto the sunlit deck of a tall ship plying the open seas of a simpler time. Its sails are full and straining in the wind. Its crew is tried and true; its hull, mast, and keel are strong. But beneath the waves—almost imperceptibly—the rudder has veered off course and, in time, the captain and crew will face unexpected peril.

The conservative movement today is like that tall ship with its proud captain; strong, accomplished, but veering off course into the dangerous and uncharted waters of big government republicanism. I make this assertion quite aware that I do so before so many who have done so much for the cause of conservative values.

The Conservative Vision

As this Resource Bank Meeting comes to a close and we reflect on battles past and future, the words of a young King David—standing in the Valley of Elam just moments before facing Goliath—seem appropriate, “Without a vision the people perish.” And he asked his countrymen, “Is there not a cause?”

Conservatives like those gathered here never suffer that question. Conservatives have the vision. Conservatives know the cause—to “establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

By the standards of these fundamental objectives of the republic, American conservatives can take considerable pride in the past three years. The ship of conservative Republican government in Washington is strong. Our movement is strong. In the promotion of national security, economic prosperity, and the sanctity of human life, conservatives made measurable gains in 2003.

The Common Defense and General Welfare

Ours was a nation under attack on September 11, 2001. I stood beneath a sky filled with mud brown smoke; people were running in every direction. F-16s were going supersonic at treetop level to intercept an inbound menace over Pennsylvania. In the midst of the chaos of that time, George W. Bush stood with his arm draped over the shoulder of a bone-weary fireman, speaking courage through a bullhorn to a listening nation.

We saw those words matched by deeds of equal valor. These are the deeds that ousted the Taliban in Afghanistan and have now defeated and captured the butcher of Baghdad. To provide for the common defense at home. And to project power in the national interest abroad. Because of conservatism, America is defending freedom at home and abroad.

At the same time, we have promoted the general welfare with the only means that ever works the means that unleashes the enterprise and initiative of the American taxpayer. Under the leadership of President Bush and the Republican Congress, two successive tax cuts have provided the largest tax relief since the days of Ronald Reagan. Just as they began to do in 1983, the positive results are now pouring in with each day’s economic news. Americans are going back to work. Businesses are expanding and this President’s determination to act on his conservative Republican principles is the reason for our returning prosperity. Yet, despite the enormous conservative achievements, there are trouble signs that the ship of conservative governance is off course.

H.R. 1

I first ran for Congress in 1988. An entrenched Democratic majority controlled Congress, frustrating President Reagan at every turn. A band of heroic House conservatives were challenging Speaker Jim Wright and welfare-state politics. A balanced federal budget was as much a fantasy as a Republican majority in Congress. But some of us believed we could reduce the size and scope of government and halt the slow march to socialism embodied in the welfare-state politics of the left.

I lost my bid in 1988 and again in 1990. When I was finally elected to Congress in 2000, I was like the frozen man. You remember the frozen man. He was born in a simpler time, slips into the snow, and thaws out years later in a more sophisticated age, frozen before the revolution, thawed out after it was over.

When I first ran for Congress, Republicans dreamed of eliminating the federal Department of Education and returning control of our schools to parents, communities, and states. Ten years later (all thawed out), I took my oath of office in the 107th Congress to join the revolution and they hand me a copy of H.R. 1. One—as in our Republican Congress’ number one priority—the “No Child Left Behind Act.” The largest expansion of the federal Department of Education since it was created by President Jimmy Carter. In the end, about 30 House conservatives and I fought against the bill and were soundly defeated by our own colleagues.

Conservatives were told to bear up: This was the exception, not the rule. And so, relieved to have that experience behind me, I anxiously awaited a new H.R. 1 for a new Congress—an H.R. 1 that I could be proud of. At the onset of the 108th Congress, I was handed another H.R. 1—the Medicare prescription drug bill, the largest new entitlement since 1965.

To the frozen man it was obvious. Another Congress. Another H.R.1. Another example of the ship of our movement veering off course. Actually, this bill started out promising. The President asked Congress for a very limited program, extending existing welfare benefits to seniors just above the poverty level—where most of the one-in-four seniors without prescription drug coverage reside.

Many conservatives, myself included, were prepared to support this limited benefit. Yet instead of giving the President the limited benefit he requested, Congress set sail to create the largest new entitlement since 1965—a massive one-size-fits-all entitlement that would place trillions in obligations on our children and grandchildren without giving any thought about how to pay for it.

In the end, 25 rebels decided to make a stand for the principle of limited government. When all the votes were counted, we were one rebel short. In the end the bill passed. The welfare state expanded. And the ship of conservative government veered off course.

Reagan’s Perspective

What then is the state of the movement? It is strong on the advance, but veering off course from our commitment to limited government. The time has come for conservatives to retake the helm of this movement and renew our commitment to fiscal discipline and to what we know to be true about the nature of government:

Conservatives know that government that governs least governs best. Conservatives know that as government expands, freedom contracts. Conservatives know that government should never do for a man what he can and should do for himself.

As I think of these timeless principles, I think of Ronald Reagan. I met President Reagan in the summer of 1988. I was a 29-year-old candidate for Congress and he was winding down a presidency that changed the world. It was a candidate photo-op in the Blue Room of the White House. I was determined to say something of meaning to the great man.

After we exchanged pleasantries, I told him I was grateful for everything he had done for the country and everything he had done to inspire my generation to believe in America again. He seemed surprised. His cheeks appeared to redden with embarrassment and he said, “Well, Mike, that’s a very nice thing of you to say.”

Moments later, he took a minute to respond to the accolades that I and others offered with characteristic humility and optimism saying, “Many of you have thanked me for what I did for America but I want you to know I don’t think I did anything. The American people decided it was time to right the ship and I was just the captain they put on the bridge when they did it.”

It’s time for conservative Americans to do what Reagan did. It’s time for conservative Americans to right the ship again. It is time to celebrate our great Republican President and Congress as they lead our nation’s progress in national security, economic prosperity, and the value of human life.

A Course Correction

There is evidence that a course correction is underway. In just the past few months, this President has asked Congress to ensure sustained economic growth by making his tax cuts permanent. He has called for restraints on federal spending and produced a budget that holds the growth of the discretionary federal government to less than 1 percent. He has made it clear that he would veto the upcoming highway bill if it raises taxes or busts the budget.

This, then, is our cause: to stand with our captain as he leads us well, to right the ship when she is adrift, and to support every effort to set her right. As Robert Krieble knew, this cause will prevail. Our labors for liberty are never in vain. The cause of freedom is not our cause, but as a young King David knew, the cause is His: the author and finisher of our faith and our freedom.

It is written: “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free.” I believe, with all my heart, that He who set this miracle of democracy on these wilderness shores will see the cause of freedom through every tomorrow until—by His grace—the veil of tyranny is lifted from every corner of planet Earth. Thank you for the honor of addressing you and thank you for all you do to keep the cause of conservative values alive in this shining city on the hill, this last best hope of earth—these United States of America.


Mr. Pence represents Indiana’s 6th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He delivered these remarks at the annual Krieble Lecture at the The Heritage Foundation’s 27th Annual Resource Bank Meeting, in Chicago, Ill., April 30, 2004.