BY ERNEST F. HOLLINGS

A headline on the front page of the April 20 Wall Street Journal reported: “Candidates Spar Over Future of the GOP.”

But the Republican debate “over the path to return the GOP to the White House” really boils down to which wing of the party is the most conservative.

I learned to be a conservative when first elected to the S.C. House of Representatives in 1948. In 1948, House Rule 34 prescribed that any spending bill must contain a certificate from the Controller (now Rule 5.3, Budget and Control Board) stating that the spending therein is provided for by the estimated revenues. If not, the spending bill was returned to the Ways and Means Committee.

As governor of South Carolina in 1960, I raised taxes and obtained a triple-A credit rating for South Carolina, which it maintains today.

Since 2001, neither Republicans nor Democrats in Congress can call themselves “conservative.” In fact, lobbyist Grover Norquist receives a pledge against being a “conservative” — against taxes. The only other way to pay for government is to amend an established law. In 1993, President Clinton submitted a budget to cut spending and an increase in energy taxes. Sens. Tom Daschle, David Boren and the farmers killed the energy tax and we were left out on the floor of the Senate with Gene Sperling trying to raise taxes on income, liquor, cigarettes, Social Security, etc.

Finally, Congress cut spending $250 billion and raised taxes $250 billion. House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich prevented us Democrats from getting a single Republican vote in the House or Senate — starting gridlock.

The Supreme Court, in Buckley vs. Valeo, reversed Congress’ ability to limit spending by equating “spending” with “speech.” Taking a poll, hiring a consultant, renting a headquarters are spending, not speech. Walk into a TV station and tell the manager you want your free speech and you’ll find yourself outside on the sidewalk.

Congress has tried for 30 years to repair the Buckley decision with McCain-Feingold, public financing, and even a constitutional amendment empowering Congress to limit or control spending in federal elections. But the constitutional amendment only received a bipartisan majority vote, not the two-thirds required for a joint resolution to pass Congress. Before Buckley, Republican and Democratic senators partied together, traveled together. After Buckley, senators started raising money against each other; partisanship set in, and with Gingrich, gridlock.

Democrats gave President George W. Bush a balanced budget in 2001. But President Bush cut taxes, started wars, added prescription drugs to Medicare, stimulated and bailed out — all without paying for them. Not receiving Republican support in 1993 to balance the budget, the Democrats weren’t about to help President Bush pay for government. The U.S. paid for all its wars, depressions, recessions, etc., and it took more than 200 years for the nation to incur a national debt of $1 trillion in 1981. President Bush increased the national debt $5 trillion in eight years. Now President Obama has increased the national debt $7 trillion in six years. The rich United States is borrowing a half trillion dollars a year to keep the doors open.

Hillary Clinton is willing to amend the Constitution to regulate unaccountable contributions in politics. She’s thinking of the Citizens United case wherein the Supreme Court allowed unaccountable contributions by corporations.

Why not amend the Constitution for what Congress voted for in 1971 and 1973 — limiting spending in elections. It’s because Congress doesn’t want to lose its advantage in fundraising.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress have an advantage in fundraising. Located amidst 10,000 lobbyists in Washington, House members have two years and senators six years to fundraise morning, noon and night. For the seventh time to be elected to the U.S. Senate, I raised and spent $8.5 million. This factors out to $27,000 a week, each week for six years. Today, a contested race for the U.S. Senate in South Carolina would cost $12 million to $15 million. As a result of the fundraising, lobbyists today have taken over control of the government. Lobbyists even tell the speaker or leader when to call a vote. That’s why Congress can’t get a vote on gun control, immigration, budgets, etc.

Let’s first amend the Constitution to empower Congress to “limit or control spending in federal elections.”

Once empowered, fundraising will be limited, partisanship will be limited, gridlock will be broken, lobbyists will be limited and Congress can take control of the government. Instead of working for themselves fundraising, members of Congress can go back to working for the government.

Ernest F. Hollings, a Democrat, served as governor of South Carolina from 1959-63 and in the U.S. Senate from 1966-2005.