Today’s guest comes from a perspective which might surprise you. Jonathan Bydlak comes from a political background as the Director of Fundraising for Ron Paul’s 2008 Presidential campaign, but has turned his talents to the lobbying side of politics as President of the Coalition to Reduce Spending. They bill themselves as the only group in Washington with that singular focus.
Since I’ve referred to his group here on several occasions, most recently in this odds and ends post, I thought his national perspective would be good for readers to understand, if only to prove not everyone inside the Beltway wants to spend, spend, spend!
monoblogue: What got me interested in your group in the first place was that you’re looking at things on the spending side, which is where I think the whole ‘fiscal cliff’ solution lies.
monoblogue: But let me back up a second, because your group is relatively new, is it not?
Bydlak: Yes, we formed in February of 2012 and we didn’t become a full-time pursuit until late May or early June.
monoblogue: So you’re actually a very new group. What was the impetus behind getting together as a group and starting it up?
Bydlak: Well, I has the idea of the group for quite some time, literally since I worked in the (Ron) Paul campaign in 2008. The initial idea actually came out of a conversation I had with Peter Schiff, when I was working on the campaign. We used to chat every so often on economics and we got into this discussion one time about, why does no one talk about spending and why is no one as serious about spending as Dr. Paul? That’s what ultimately, personally drew me to Ron Paul, that he was willing to ask the question ‘where are you going to get this money from to pay for the things that you want to do?’ which most of the candidates in both parties tend to not want to do.
Anyway, the thought occurred to me at the time – Grover (Norquist) has been successful at getting – at least Republicans – to not raise taxes. And it struck me that the pledge model is actually a pretty effective one – not just because of Grover’s success, but also if you look at the term limits movement for example in the 1990s spread pretty effectively through groups like US Term Limits by using a pledge mechanism. It struck me as odd that no one had attempted to apply that model to the spending side of the equation, and here we fast-forward five years after the 2008 campaign…the TEA Party movement is talking about the debt and about spending, and it seems to be a more significant awareness and concern about borrowing and the debt, and so on… You have groups that focus on the tax side of the equation and you have groups that talk about spending along with twenty other issues, but there’s no one who has attempted to create an organization that is focused solely on spending…
There was a huge void being missed, particularly in light of the fact that people are seemingly waking up to the notion that spending is ultimately the cause of our financial problems.
monoblogue: Right. And I guess that’s the other side of the equation; as you said, Grover Norquist is very well known for his ‘no new tax’ pledge. The problem that I’m sure people are having a hard time wrapping their head around on the idea of cutting spending is that you can cut spending for anybody except the pet group of the person that’s sitting there saying “we need to cut foreign aid” or “we need to cut welfare” or “we need to cut defense.” Yet there’s other people who say “you can’t cut defense” or “you can’t cut welfare” and you can’t cut all this other spending. If – and maybe this is kind of putting you on the spot – if it were up to Jonathan Bydlak, what would be cut spending-wise?
Bydlak: Let me make a couple comments on that. So the first thing is that everyone wants to get into, exactly what we should cut. The problem I have with that discussion is that it assumes there’s already agreement that there should be cutting going on. As the recent fiscal cliff negotiations show, there’s actually not agreement at all. You had all but eight Senators voting for McConnell’s fiscal cliff compromise, and you had roughly one-third of Republicans and all but 16 Democrats voting in favor of the bill. So, in Washington at least, there isn’t agreement that we even should be cutting in the first place. We haven’t passed a budget in over 3 1/2 years, over a thousand days. So from our group’s perspective there is significant value to be added just by getting people together from both sides of the aisle and getting them to even agree with the premise that we should cut spending. That’s my first comment.
As far as where you cut, the bigger problem isn’t so much that everyone has their pet projects per se, it’s that both parties have not wanted to address significant portions of the budget. The reality is, if you want to balance the budget, you want to curb spending and bring the budget back into balance, you have to address the big-ticket items in the budget, and there are relatively few: entitlement spending and military spending. The interesting thing about those two things is they essentially represent the two sacred cows of the two major parties. On the left you have entitlements, Democrats (will tell you) ‘no, you can’t consider entitlement reform, on the right you have military spending and Republicans say, “no, we can’t really go and address a bloated Pentagon budget.”
So at the end of the day if you care about having a government that lives within its means, it doesn’t really matter what Jonathan Bydlak wants to cut because it’s a mass that you have to reform. Entitlements and military spending make up 75 to 80 percent of the budget, and when we’re talking about borrowing 40 to 45 cents out of every dollar you can’t balance that without…by looking at only 20 to 25 percent of the budget. So the second point I’ll make is that, from our group’s perspective, we’re trying to increase awareness and highlight the fact that ultimately, if you’re serious about spending and serious about having government live within its means, you have to also be serious about reassessing entitlement spending, about reassessing military spending, and about getting both parties to put their sacred cows on the table. The big part of the problem as I see it: Republicans, for a long time, have talked a good game about “we need to cut spending” and then Democrats come back and say, “all right, let’s start with the Pentagon.” Republicans say no, that’s our sacred cow and push it off the table…as a result, Democrats are never forced to put entitlement spending on the table.
To me, the most important line in our pledge is the line that says, “all spending must be on the table.” We can have the debate down the road about how much we can cut from here and how much we can cut from there, but let’s start with an agreement that we shouldn’t claim spending and that everything should be on the chopping block. In my opinion, that’s the only way you’re ever going to get both parties to seriously consider the types of cuts that need to happen.
monoblogue: So you’re looking at it more as a groundswell of support from the outside rather than trying to work from the inside…you’re looking for the people to say, “look, we want you to address this problem – we don’t care exactly how you address this problem, just put everything on the table and let’s address it.”
Bydlak: I think that’s the starting point, right? Then you have to say what can we cut in the Pentagon’s budget, and how can you restructure Social Security and Medicare and other entitlement programs. That’s the sort of debate that has to happen, but instead we see…grandstanding about that we can’t cut this, or can’t cut that, or, in general, an unwillingness to put their own sacred cows on the table. The compromise is always “I’ll vote for your spending if you vote for mine,” rather than “I’ll accept some cuts in my spending if you accept some cuts in yours.”
I think you’re starting to see a pretty significant change…one is that Ted Cruz, for example, he signed the Pledge and has been saying everything should be on the table. That’s something that would be hard to imagine happening five or ten years ago. Another example is Lindsey Graham – now Lindsey Graham and I would probably have disagreements over how much could be cut from the Pentagon’s budget, but Lindsey Graham has said, “you know what, I’d be willing to go and consider military spending on the chopping block if we can get meaningful entitlement reform.” That’s a very big change, so that’s the sort of mindset that we’re trying to promote, to actually get people to realize this problem is ultimately, in my opinion, and if you want to talk about the greatest threat to our national security, it’s our national debt.
So the way that you’ll ultimately get significant reform in these areas is to get everyone to agree that their sacred cow is on the table, too. I wouldn’t characterize it as working from the outside or working from the inside; it’s a combination of both.
monoblogue: Given that you have such an influence from Ron Paul, you would get a reputation as sort of a maverick. That was Ron Paul’s entire gig, so to say – he was not exactly a mainstream Republican (and) he kind of went his own way. That’s fine; I respect him for that. Do you find that the influence – most people know you’re disciples of Ron Paul and such – is that a large obstacle in Washington?
Bydlak: I don’t consider myself a disciple of Ron Paul; I don’t know even what that exactly means. Obviously I’m very supportive of Dr. Paul and I’m generally of the same political persuasion, but I don’t consider myself a disciple of anyone. There have been a couple of articles which came out recently saying that I’m the next Grover Norquist, if you will, (but) my comment is I’m the first Jonathan Bydlak. (laughs) That’s funny, my parents will tell you a story that when I was five years old, maybe I was four, the first book I ever bought was a collection of Ronald Reagan’s speeches, “Speaking My Mind,” which was an autobiography and collection of speeches he wrote shortly after leaving the White House. I paid a dollar for it at a used bookstore and growing up I had a picture of Ronald Reagan on my bedside table. There are plenty of things I would disagree with Ronald Reagan on, so again, to characterize me as a disciple of one or the other, I don’t really know.
I suppose your argument is that simply by having worked for Dr. Paul that somehow that ends up being a disadvantage, but I don’t think so because the focus of our organization is just on the issue. If you think about which organizations in Washington tend to be most effective at accomplishing their objectives, in my opinion the evidence is pretty obvious. And that is organizations that have a laser-like focus on one issue – you think about the NRA, you think about the ACLU – left or right, those groups tend to be the ones that are most effective and ultimately the most feared. So I think this is part of the reason it’s so important to focus only on the issue of spending, because if you start taking positions on twenty different issues the coalition of people that you’re able to bring together becomes increasingly limited. My hope, and I think what we’re proving, is that we’re able to bring together a larger number of people by focusing solely on one issue, regardless of whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, independent, Libertarian, Green, pick your ideological persuasion or party affiliation.
monoblogue; Well, I agree with that. That makes perfect sense to me. Now I know you were also circulating a spending pledge, much like Grover Norquist’s pledge not to raise taxes, and you mentioned Ted Cruz – I assume he’s one of those who has signed that pledge?
Bydlak: Yes, that’s right.
monoblogue: Who else has signed the pledge, and has anyone started to think about 2014 and contacted you and said “I already don’t like the way things are going in this Congress and I wanted to get a early jump on the next Congress so I’d like to sign your pledge now?”
Bydlak: We got started in the middle of the primary cycle, so we got started a little late just by virtue of when the group was formed. We had 24 candidates nationwide who signed the Pledge; of those we had a Democrat running in New York City, we had an independent running in Colorado, we had a handful of Libertarians, and the rest were Republicans. Out of those, I think 12 made it into the general election, and then two were elected: Ted Cruz being one and the most prominent, and the other being Doug Collins, who was elected in Georgia’s Ninth District, which has recently been redrawn because of the Census and Georgia getting an additional seat. Representative Collins has been looking pretty great in terms of what he’s been saying; I think he seems pretty solid on the issue. Of course, we’ll see how that continues to pan out… That’s sort of where we are right now; naturally we are focusing on getting organized ourselves in terms of being able to maximize our impact in 2014, with the idea being that we want to get as many people on the record as possible saying they are committed to the planks of our Pledge.
monoblogue: So your foot is in the door in terms of both the House and the Senate…in the future – and I know you’re basically a one-issue organization – are you planning on getting into financially supporting candidates or do you just want to stay with the advocacy arm of it?
Bydlak: No, we don’t endorse any candidates. Part of what I see our role is to put candidates on the record. For example, in the Texas Senate race Lieutenant Governor (David) Dewhurst, who was running against Cruz, also signed the Pledge within a day after we announced Senator Cruz had signed… We’re not here to endorse anyone.
Pledges have two main benefits, I think. One is that they provide information to voters. When candidates run for office and say they’re serious about tackling the national debt, or that they’re a fiscal conservative, or what have you – it’s one thing to say those things but it’s another thing to be actually willing to put your name on paper and say what that actually means. We are attempting to define very clearly what that means; generally the three planks of our Pledge, which is that you’ll only vote for a balanced budget, you won’t vote for new spending programs that aren’t offset elsewhere in the budget, and they won’t vote to increase borrowing.
The second benefit, of course, is that when they get into office and they renege on the promise they made to voters, well, now there’s a means for the voters, the activists, and the media to hold them accountable. It’s not just that they ran for office and it was some random verbal promise, here you have it in writing and you can say, “wait a minute, this is what you said and you’re not doing that.”
So we see our role as not at all trying to endorse anyone, but actually trying to get as many people as possible to go on the record and say we care about these issues enough that we want to signal to voters that we’re serious enough to say we want to sign on the dotted line. That, in a nutshell – to us, it’s more about changing the incentives of the game. There’s a great Milton Friedman quote where he says something to the effect of the greatest challenge in politics is to create good incentives so that imperfect people do good things. And the idea is if you’re going to rely on politicians to do the right thing, that’s kind of a fool’s errand. But you can start to create incentives for certain behavior – that is something that I think is really valuable, and that’s where I think the Pledge is really valuable that it starts to provide a counterweight to the incentive of the status quo, which is basically bring home the pork to your district and have your campaign financed by special interest groups.
But if you can show that voters care about these issues enough where politicians feel compelled enough to go on the record about them, well, that changes the incentives of the game and perhaps leads to a better opportunity to see meaningful spending cuts.
monoblogue: Certainly I’d like to see, if I’m faced with a primary of ten people, I’d love to see that ten people signed the Pledge, and I definitely want to do my part to spread the word. I know you guys have a website and all that, so take this opportunity to plug yourselves for my readers.
Bydlak: The website is reducespending.org, People can go on our website and download a copy of our Pledge, and get their Representative or Senator to sign, or candidates to sign. There is also a Voter Pledge people can sign, with the goal being the more support we can show for the idea we are promoting the better. We are open to any suggestion, certainly we are heavily into social media, which is probably not surprising given my experience in the Paul campaign, but definitely join our Facebook page, follow us on Twitter, and send me an e-mail and get involved that way in terms of, if there are ideas people have, we want to hear any of them.
monoblogue: I have one last thing that just occurred to me. Are you planning on taking this to a state level, or strictly federal?
Bydlak: It’s absolutely something we would like to do, and we’ve already talked to a couple organizations about this. The challenge of the state level is that there are fifty different requirements, as some states have balanced budget requirements, some don’t, there’s various minutia in every different state; frankly, I’m not well-versed in all the minutia in how each state works. So that’s a growth opportunity and something we want to do, but we need to enlist the involvement of people who are experts so what we would likely do is roll them out in a handful of states at a time. That’s definitely something we would like to do in the future.
monoblogue: All right. I appreciate the time; it’s been very enlightening to me and hopefully getting the word out a little at a time will help you in 2014.
I hope you enjoyed this as much as I enjoyed chatting with Jonathan, whose group may someday rival organizations like Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. Certainly I think they have a sound approach to getting excess spending into the national conversation.
Next week’s guest is yet to be determined, since there’s a possibility of having a “breaking news” personality. Stay tuned.