December 14, 2004

December 14, 2004 | Commentary on Political Thought

Legislative Lowdown -- Week of December 13

Power has its privileges in any walk of life. That's especially true in the House of Representatives, where the governing party has wide latitude to set the rules lawmakers will follow for an entire term.

So, with ten years of majority rule under their belt, just how adept have House Republicans become at transforming the Congress into an agent for ongoing conservative change?

This is an important question because many Washington insiders openly wonder about the ability of a reelected George W. Bush and his allies on Capitol Hill to enact the ambitious legislative reform agenda that appears necessary. Whether House Republicans will succeed in transforming the House in a fundamental way will become evident when the House votes on a seemingly arcane set of internal rules changes when the 109th Congress convenes in January.

Admittedly, most discussions of the procedural rules that govern House and Senate floor activity induce immediate and deep sleep. Yet, properly done, a carefully crafted rule not only reflects the underlying values of the majority, but can ease the path to the legislative enactment of those values.

Case in point: In 1995 the newly elected Republican House resolved to make it next to impossible for big government liberals to increase marginal tax rates, and adopted several rules changes designed to accomplish precisely that. Not surprisingly, over the last decade liberals have all but abandoned their dreams of enacting big hikes in the marginal rates of taxation.

Today, a preeminent concern among many House members is the way House procedural and budget rules tilt the playing field in favor of federal spending, and deter legislative efforts to reign in "Big Government." An intriguing coalition of Republican moderates and conservatives has united behind a rules change that could reverse that tilt.

Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk, elected co-chairman of a caucus of more than 50 House Republican moderates, has proposed a change that would require any legislation that would increase entitlement spending (i.e., spending on programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) to receive a two-thirds supermajority in order to pass.

Observers give Kirk a fighting chance to succeed in light of a similar floor amendment he offered last June to place procedural obstacles in the way of entitlement expansions. That amendment garnered 120 Republican votes, more than enough to prevail under Speaker Dennis Hastert's new standard that a "majority of the majority" of House Republicans will determine the course of future legislation.

In addition to supporting Kirk's effort, the 100 or so members of the Republican Study Committee will lead an effort, spearheaded by Florida's Tom Feeney (R.) and Texas' Jeb Hensarling (R.), to enact other much-needed reforms.

These include the adoption of a tighter definition of the much-abused concept of "emergency" spending, a commonsense rules change that would enable budget hawks to redirect spending from failed programs into deficit reduction or tax relief (under current law, a successful effort to reduce funding for a particular program does not reduce the overall level of spending in a bill, but instead results in the savings being redistributed to other programs), and making it more difficult for congressional leaders to waive rules already in place that are designed to limit spending.

Another thrust by House Republicans to improve the overall prospects for proposals to limit government has come to light in the wake of a recent conclave of House and Senate congressional leaders. At this cloistered meeting, according to Roll Call, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R.-Tex.) floated the notion of eliminating three of the 13 appropriations subcommittees and realigning the responsibilities of those that remain so that they mesh better with Republican priorities and the Republican worldview. Ten years into majority status, DeLay and other Hill Republicans remain frustrated that the current structure was designed by Democrats to fund their liberal agenda for activist government.

"It makes a difference," one unnamed House leadership aide said, "whether we have a Congress that's organized to fund the New Deal or organized in a way to fund a conservative worldview."

DeLay believes that the current structure, by purposely grouping together unrelated agencies in the same bill, creates artificial pressure to boost spending in each area represented in each appropriations bill. Grouping veterans spending with housing programs, as is currently done, results in compromises that increase both areas. Segregating spending bills by function, he hopes, would make it easier to restrain annual spending increases.

It's an ambitious agenda, but one that voters should monitor closely because good things can happen if the House rules are right. Mr. Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

Mr. Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First appeared in Human Events