What do you carry around in your wallet? For most people, a driver’s license and a credit card, a little bit of cash, and maybe even some pictures of the family. For Rep. Tom Feeney (R-FL), the answer is a list of conservative principles: less government, lower taxes, personal responsibility, individual freedom, stronger families, and domestic tranquility. These are the issues Feeney considers every time he is asked to support a bill; these are the concepts that he believes can provide a guiding light through the murky waters of politics.
Feeney began using principles cards when he was the Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, and the idea has now begun to catch on in Washington, D.C. The Republican Study Committee recently released a Conservative Check Card based on Feeney’s Florida cards. The card reads:
Less Government Does the bill tend to reduce government regulations, size of government, or eliminate entitlements or unnecessary programs?
Lower Taxes Does the bill promote individual responsibility in spending, or reduce taxes or fees?
Personal Responsibility Does the bill encourage responsible behavior by individuals and families and encourage them to provide for their own health, safety, education, moral fortitude, or general welfare?
Individual Freedom Does the bill increase opportunities for individuals or families to decide, without hindrance or coercion from government, how to conduct their own lives and make personal choices?
Stronger Families Does the bill enhance the traditional American family and its power to rear children without excessive interference from the government?
Domestic Tranquility, National Defense Does the bill enhance American security without unduly burdening civil liberty?
Feeney discussed his use of principles in a recent speech at The Heritage Foundation. He said that legislators have to work to make sure they only support bills that will help the American people, and using the principles as a guideline can be a good way to make sure one does not support legislation for the wrong reasons.
“Principles are inconvenient things in the day to day business of legislation,” Feeney said. “It’s very tempting as a politician to say one thing at home and do something else in D.C., but actually a principled look at legislation is the best way to go.”
Taking a principled approach to legislation does not mean one cannot compromise, however. Politicians have to choose their battles, Feeney said. “It’s not worth dying on every battlefield,” he said, but adherents to a principled legislative approach should work to advance freedom on a daily basis. For example, passing a budget requires a great deal of compromise and concession, and politicians have to decide which parts of the budget are worth a battle. “You have to think of every budget as a Clint Eastwood movie,” Feeney said, “part good, part bad, part ugly.”
Of course, even when following the principles outlined on the Conservative Check Card, politicians can still face a variety of dilemmas. Sometimes where a politician should stand on an issue is clear-cut, and sometimes it is not.
For example, this year the average American worked until July 7 just to pay the government, Feeney said. He explained that Margaret Thatcher once pointed out that medieval serfs, some of the worst-off members of society, only had to pay one-third of their income to the king. “We are now at a relative disadvantage with medieval serfs,” Feeney said. The position here is clear. Support measures that would lower taxes.
However, which position to take on an issue can become more complicated when conservative principles begin to conflict with one another. For example, the new world of terror that emerged after September 11th has made surveillance and other security measures more necessary and more intrusive, putting the need for domestic security at odds with the need to preserve individual liberties.
Feeney said his approach to this conflict has been to support the least offensive means necessary to take precautions against terrorists. Just because some people have to be searched at some places does not mean all people have to be searched at all places, he said.
Taking a principled position can also be complicated when politicians share contrasting, but justifiable, views on the same issue. A politician could, for example, take a pro-choice stance on abortion if he or she truly believes that life does not begin at conception, Feeney said. Principled politicians cannot, however, take a position on abortion such as the one held by John Kerry, Feeney said. Kerry has said he believes that life begins at conception, but he still accepts the idea that women can choose to kill their unborn children.
“That can never be a principled position under any set of principles,” Feeney said.
Even with a principled approach to legislation, deciding which position to take on an issue can be difficult; however, with a firm set of principles clearly outlined, conservative politicians can remind themselves what they believe in and avoid the pitfall of playing politics instead of pursuing principled legislation.
“[I] believe that if you follow good principles, good practices will result,” Feeney said.