There is something exquisite about the moment when a conservative decides he needs more government in his life.
About 10:30 Monday morning, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., an ardent foe of big government, posted a blog item on his campaign website about the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. "I strongly believe BP is spread too thin," he wrote.
The poor dears. He thinks it would be a better arrangement if "federal and state officials" would do the dirty work of "protecting and cleaning up the coast" instead of BP.
About an hour later came word from the Pentagon that Alabama, Florida and Mississippi — all three governed by men who once considered themselves limited-government conservatives — want the federal government to mobilize (at taxpayer expense, of course) more National Guard troops to aid in the cleanup.
That followed an earlier request by the small-government governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, who issued a statement saying he had called the Obama administration "to outline the state's needs" and to ask "for additional resources."
About the time that Alabama, Florida and Mississippi were asking for more federal help, three small-government Republican senators, Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions of Alabama and George LeMieux of Florida, were flying over the gulf on a U.S. government aircraft with small-government Republican Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida.
"We're here to send the message that we're going to do everything we can from a federal level to mitigate this," Sessions said after the flight, "to protect the people and make sure when people are damaged that they're made whole."
Sessions, probably the Senate's most ardent supporter of tort reform, found himself extolling the virtues of litigation — against BP. "They're not limited in liability on damage, so if you've suffered a damage, they are the responsible party," said Sessions, sounding very much like the trial lawyers he usually maligns.
It may have taken an ecological disaster, but the gulf-state conservatives' newfound respect for the powers and purse of the federal government is a timely reminder for them. As conservatives in Washington complain about excessive federal spending, the ones who would suffer the most from spending cuts are their own constituents.
An analysis of data from the nonpartisan Tax Foundation found that people in states that voted Republican were by far the biggest beneficiaries of federal spending. In states that voted strongly Republican, people received an average of $1.50 back from the federal government for every dollar they paid in federal taxes. In moderately Republican states, the amount was $1.19. In moderately Democratic states, people received on average of 99 cents in federal funds for each dollar they paid in taxes. In strongly Democratic states, people got back just 86 cents on the tax dollar.
If Sessions and Shelby succeed in shrinking government, their constituents in Alabama will be some of the biggest losers: They get $1.66 in federal benefits for every $1 they pay in taxes. If Louisiana's Vitter succeeds in shrinking government, his constituents will lose some of the $1.78 in federal benefits they receive for every dollar in taxes they pay. In Mississippi, it's $2.02.
That may explain why, as the oil slick hits the Gulf Coast, lawmakers from the region are willing to swallow their limited-government principles as they dangle federal aid before their constituents. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said he would "make sure the federal government is poised to assist in every way necessary."
President Barack Obama tried to remind the government-is-the-enemy crowd of this situation in a speech on Saturday. "Government is the police officers who are protecting our communities, and the servicemen and women who are defending us abroad," he said. "Government is the roads you drove in on and the speed limits that kept you safe. Government is what ensures that mines adhere to safety standards and that oil spills are cleaned up by the companies that caused them."
For the moment, some of the conservatives have new appreciation for governmental powers. "We're going to have the oil industry folks, the BP folks, in front of us on the Commerce Committee," Florida's LeMieux vowed in the news conference Monday. "We're going to talk about these drilling issues."
But not before the taxpayer sends some more big-government money down to the small-government politicians of the gulf.
Dana Milbank's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2010, Washington Post Writers Group