Changing how the House works for all of us

Give Meaning Back to Holding the Chairman’s Gavel: The Republican conference has six-year term limits for Members to serve as Chairmen and/or Ranking Members, though the conference can give waivers on a case-by-case basis. Joe Barton (R-Texas), Ranking Member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), Ranking Member of the Appropriations Committee, reached their limits and will apply for waivers.

But the key issue for Republicans is not so much who is Chairman of the various Committees, but what powers they have to legislate. Historically, the House was an institution where gavel-wielding Chairmen had broad control of decisions about legislation under their jurisdiction.  But in the last decade, major decisions about legislation – from what to include in a bill to when to schedule a vote – are being decided at the top level of House leadership without “regular order” of Committee markups, votes and floor consideration. For example, the Ways and Means Committee which oversees tax legislation held only three markups in the 111th Congress as Speaker Pelosi essentially ran tax, trade and healthcare policy out of her office with help from Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and a handful of senior Committee members.   Republicans have made noise about returning power to the committees, and doing so will improve the legislative process as Congress returns to openly debating legislative details of bills before they come to the floor.  Of course an open process has two drawbacks.  First, it allows minority input which could result in amendments designed more as poison pills or future campaign commercials than legitimate attempts to improve the underlying bill.  Second, it requires the new Speaker to cede power his predecessors used to great effect to pass landmark legislation.  Still, count me among those saying the benefits of returning real power to Chairmen in the House far outweigh the risks.

Adopt Rules That Reinvigorate Floor Debate: In 1994 and 2006, the party out of power made big promises about fixing the House rules to allow more legislative work time, more open debate, and more transparency in the process of lawmaking.  Despite some success in both instances, today’s floor process too often includes rushing legislation to the floor before it is read and understood by Representatives, followed by a closed rule that allows no real debate on amendments that have a chance to pass, effectively disenfranchising the more than 40 percent of Americans who are represented by the minority party.  So, watch carefully to see the details of the Rules package adopted in January.  Things like posting a bill on-line for three days before a vote and allowing amendments to cut spending proposed in any bill are relatively easy promises to make for the new majority.  Providing meaningful chances to amend legislation on the floor is harder but will show Speaker Boehner intends to change the way business is done in the House.  The best path to a strong majority is to legitimately empower every Member as an equal participant in floor debate and risk the occasional loss of a vote as a result.

Pay Now to Fix Our Budgetary Problems: A Republican House has challenges to face, including: (1) completing the overdue omnibus spending bill for FY11; (2) deciding the future of earmarked funding, and (3) repairing a process that created a $1 trillion dollar deficit this year but failed to produce a budget resolution to guide government spending.  Let’s address each of those in turn.

Republicans will have to deal with the FY11 appropriations process in the lame-duck, and perhaps a quick deal with the outgoing majority should be reached so everyone can clear the legislative slate and focus their efforts on the FY12 budget and appropriations cycle they will lead beginning in January.  Kicking the appropriations process into next year means the new majority starts the FY12 process weeks or months behind schedule.

It’s become politically popular to attack earmarked funding as a symbol of Congressional corruption and ineffective federal spending priorities, even though earmarks are about one percent of discretionary federal spending and cutting them entirely won’t save any money.  Since Election Day, the House Leadership has called for continuing a 2010 moratorium on earmarks, but many in the rank and file want to keep the projects for legitimate reasons.  The moratorium should be used to create a new process that allows Congress to have a voice in directing spending but fixes the flaws of the current earmarking system.  Meanwhile, House Republicans should focus attention on the more important budgetary issues. Foremost among those challenges should be fixing the appropriations process so that Congress actually passes spending bills on time.  You can’t say cutting spending is a priority if you allow federal government spending to operate on auto-pilot via a Continuing Resolution for several months each year.  You can’t use the appropriations process to reduce funding to disfavored programs if the process itself doesn’t run on time or close to it.  
 
The temptation in February will be to declare President Obama’s proposed budget “Dead on Arrival” when it reaches the House, but ownership of the majority means Republicans bear direct responsibility for getting the budget process back on track.  Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is the likely new Chairman of the Budget Committee and as legitimate a policy star as the Republican House has turned out in recent times.  Congressman Ryan is the rare Member who has offered a comprehensive and detailed plan (an actual “Road Map”) to directly address the short-term challenges of the exploding federal deficit and the long-term consequences of entitlement programs that can no longer be sustained at their current growth rates. There is no similar comprehensive plan from Democrats, but it likely would reflect very different views about status quo spending and future entitlement reform.  While Republicans should not over-interpret their electoral mandate, one likely conclusion to draw from the election results is that voters want Congress to address the looming and systemic budget challenges we face sooner rather than later.  Does Speaker Boehner let Chairman Ryan move forward now while Republican political capital is at a high point, or will they drive the budget process without a real long-term Road Map?  It’s one of the most important questions for the new majority to answer.  Republicans will be better off campaigning in 2012 if they have taken serious steps in 2011 to fix the nation’s budgetary problems.

Use Floor Time to Pass Popular Legislation: Too much House floor time is spent on naming post offices, passing honorary resolutions for all manner of entities, and commemorating past events.  The lack of meaningful floor time creates cynicism amongst a public that is using the Internet, CSPAN, cable television and social media to monitor the details of inner workings in Congress like never before.  Incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) put out a plan last week that will limit much of this type of legislation moving forward but there is still a need to make better use of floor time.  The new Republican majority should try two ideas to reinforce the perception that the House is doing the people’s work.  First, the Rules package should amend the suspension calendar to include a consensus agenda allowing a vote on any bill that has 250 House sponsors so long as it has at least 40 minority Member sponsors.  What this does is ensure popular bills with clear bipartisan support – especially smaller items that tend to wait around to hitch a ride on bigger legislative vehicles - won’t simply be bottled up due to lack of legislative attention but will instead get an up or down vote on a timely basis.  It also gives every Member a target to shoot for - if they want a bill passed, they need to get their colleagues on board and they need to have meaningful interaction with both parties to get there.  Sponsoring a bill will mean something because it will be helping propel it to the floor, and sponsorship of specific bills helps build transparency in what a Member actually believes Congress should be passing.  Second, the House should set aside significant floor time each week to debate and vote on specific reductions in regulation (similar to the You Cut idea Republicans used this past year to examine spending cuts).  Much of the growing morass of regulation may not be able to stand the scrutiny of extended public debate.  The House can shine a light on those regulations and start the process of rolling some of them back while putting regulators on notice that future regulation will be subject to more intense oversight.

Make Authorizing Legislation a Priority: A big casualty of a more leadership-driven House legislative process is that it has become increasingly hard to move the routine bills that update the authorizations of various federal departments, agencies and offices. The FAA reauthorization bill never comes in for a landing, the highway bill finds itself at a dead end, the food safety bill goes hungry, No Child Left Behind is in long-term detention.  These puns write themselves in a Congress where being two years overdue to reauthorize is practically on-time.  Various parts of the economy are underperforming because long-awaited authorization legislation creates uncertainty about the future and dampens potential private investment in the sector.  Republicans should care that the lack of authorizing legislation means less scrutiny for how we spend our precious limited resources while giving more power to unelected bureaucracies.  If you are going to right-size government, getting authorization legislation moving again will help make it happen.

The steps outlined above will help Republicans legislate successfully and build the public trust needed for substantial policy achievements in the future.

Kevin O’Neill is the Deputy Chairman of the Public Policy Department at Patton Boggs LLP.  The views expressed here are his own.

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