A dilemma for conservatives is that to advance the cause of limited government, some of them have to join government and pass laws. Ironically, the most active state legislators come from the libertarian wing of the Republican Party.
Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, who was on Ron Paul’s New Hampshire delegate list last year, has filed 21 legislative service requests, or proposals for new laws, more than any other state legislator. Rep. Dan Itse, R-Fremont, a six-term legislator well known for his literal interpretation of the Constitution, is second with 19. Rep. George Lambert, R-Litchfield, another Ron Paul supporter, submitted 17 LSRs, tying him for third with Manchester Rep. Tim O’Flaherty, the most active Democratic bill filer. Privacy watchdog Neal Kurk, R-Weare, is fifth with 13 new bills. Reps. Dan and Carol McGuire, R-Epsom, who are members of the Free State project, combined for 14 proposed bills.
For perspective, more than half of all state representatives — 207 — filed no bills at all. The 400 legislators collectively filed 588 LSRs, an average of 1.5 each.
Being in government is not a conservative’s natural habitat. This has always meant advocates of bigger government have home field advantage in legislatures. These bodies attract politicians who assume that a lawmaker’s job is to make laws, who measure their effectiveness by how many bills they pass. They are the ones who prattle on about all the bills they introduced or co-sponsored. They ignore Thomas Jefferson’s admonition that the sum of good government is to restrain men from injuring one another while otherwise leaving them alone.
Barry Goldwater addressed this inherent conflict in “The Conscience of a Conservative”: “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size…. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them…. And if I should be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ ‘interests,’ I shall reply that I was informed that their main interest is liberty, and in that cause I am doing the very best I can.”
So have these these liberty-minded legislators been coopted by the system and become big government conservatives?
Among the bills requested by Hoell are several affirming gun rights; one exempting New Hampshire maple syrup from federal regulation; another providing for the election of judges; and one that prohibits towns from applying for federal funds to buy military-style BearCats.
Itse’s bills include one requiring identification cards that indicate whether a college student is an in- or out-of-state resident; three to limit the reach of the business enterprise tax; and five that would exempt livestock, poultry and other items from the Food Safety and Modernization Act.
Lambert filed bills to direct the Department of Resources and Economic Development to develop a “Live Free or Die Bucks Program” to increase tourism spending; one to repeal state automobile inspection requirements; and another to repeal certain requirements related to sugar packets.
Hoell defends his activist approach to legislation. “While I agree that Goldwater’s premise is correct, our government has continued to trample the rights of our citizens. Therefore the best use of my time, and that of the Legislature, is to put forward bills that restore these lost rights and constrain government wherever possible,” he wrote in an email.
Itse says his bills defend the people of New Hampshire from federal encroachment, amend existing laws to protect constitutional rights, or enact new statutes to protect constitutional or common law rights. “I don’t think any of those would fall under Goldwater’s prohibition. Remember, the only way to repeal a law is with legislation,” Itse told me.
Dan McGuire adopts an incremental approach. “The practical legislator tries to move the ball in his direction,” McGuire wrote. “Often a bad policy can’t be eliminated all at once. You have to adopt a policy of adding exceptions, then maybe growing those exceptions, until the original restriction is no more.”
Another longtime legislator, a conservative stalwart who has served during times when the conservative tide was in and when it was out, took a more nuanced view. “Less government is nice, but less harmful government is nicer — and it’s sometimes easier to achieve.”
Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed @FergusCullen.