June 14, 2005

June 14, 2005 | Commentary on

Legislative Lowdown -- Week of June 13th

"The nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth," Ronald Reagan said, "is a government program." That lesson hasn't been lost on one of the most entrepreneurial House committee chairmen, Rep. Richard Pombo (R.-Calif.), who chairs the Resources Committee.

Like many chairmen, Pombo has long been frustrated by the unnoticed practice whereby Congress funds hundreds of expired programs. According to the Congressional Budget Office, in the current fiscal year Congress will send approximately $170 billion to 167 federal programs, including many questionable ones relating to energy independence, pollution, mental-health disorders, substance abuse, family planning, homelessness and Amtrak subsidies.

Pombo believes this practice, which has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, impedes Congress' crucial oversight function and dampens its willingness to overhaul ineffective federal programs.

Failing Programs

Testifying before the House Rules Committee recently, Pombo made a compelling point. "Vested interests," he said, view the funding of expired programs as a "recipe for bigger government," and the surest way to perpetuate the status quo indefinitely. Thus, they see no reason "to come to the table in good faith to modernize programs that are failing to achieve their original goals."

Pombo pointed to a program over which his committee exercises jurisdiction-the Endangered Species Act. The ESA, which expired more than a decade ago, has hobbled along on automatic pilot despite an abysmal record-a "less than 1% success rate for species recovery." Altogether, Pombo tabulated 36 expired programs within his jurisdiction, funded to the tune of $5.4 billion in 2005.

Given that committee chairmen move heaven and earth to hoard even the most inane aspects of their programmatic "turf," it's surprising that Pombo is the only chairman willing to identify this practice as an erosion of his committee's proper role. After all, it shifts the locus of power on Capitol Hill away from the "powerful" committee chairmen in the House and Senate and hands that clout directly to the appropriators.

No committee chairman suffers more from this "business as usual" attitude than Sen. Mike Enzi (R.-Wyo.), chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. In 2005, 29 lapsed programs within this committee's jurisdiction will receive over $36 billion. The runner-up is Rep. Mike Oxley, chairman of the Financial Services Committee, where 10 unauthorized programs will garner almost $31 billion this year.

Yet the remedy is a simple one: Enforce the existing House rule that prohibits appropriating funds to lapsed programs. That's precisely what Pombo sought when he appeared before the House Rules Committee. Unfortunately, House leaders have grown accustomed to waiving this rule on all 13 appropriations bills.

Gang Fight

Tensions have been quietly building within House Democratic leadership circles since the 109th Congress began, largely because of the renegade behavior of three-dozen rank-and-file Democrats. Since February, these lawmakers have sided repeatedly with House Republicans on several pieces of fairly significant legislation.

Now, these bills-tightening standards for drivers' licenses and other immigration reforms, an overhaul of bankruptcy law, limitations on class-action lawsuits, the energy bill, permanent repeal of the death tax and a ban on transporting minors across state lines to secure abortions-don't constitute the sort of ideological watershed that was the Contract with America. But they're controversial enough to have provoked outrage from many on the left.

The Nation decried the bankruptcy reforms as "a tutorial in greed." NARAL Pro-Choice America called the abortion legislation "cruel" and "unconstitutional." The Sierra Club blasted the House energy bill as a "vast wish-list for the Exxon-Mobiles of the world" that "lets big business polluters off the hook." The American Civil Liberties Union denounced the immigration reforms as an "assault on immigrants" that would "undermine our national commitment to freedom and liberty." Whew.

But, despite this onslaught, this Gang of 36 aligned itself with the Republican leadership on at least four of these six bills. Who are they?

Several of them-Representatives Dan Boren (Okla.), Henry Cuellar (Tex.), Jim Costa (Calif.), Melissa Bean and Dan Lipinski (Ill.), John Salazar (Colo.), Charlie Melancon (La.) and Ben Chandler (Ky.)-hail from the freshmen class. Their independence from party leaders so early in their congressional careers is significant.

Eight belong to either the Congressional Black Caucus- Representatives Artur Davis (Ala.), Sanford Bishop and David Scott (Ga.) and Harold Ford (Tenn.)-or the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. In addition to Salazar and Cuellar, add Representatives Silvestre Reyes and Ruben Hinojosa (Tex.). Another dozen boast lifetime ACU records qualifying them as liberals.

The bottom line is, you can find a surprising amount of bipartisanship in the House on second-tier issues that don't provoke the sort of ruthless party discipline we've seen on such high-profile national debates as Social Security reform. The emergence of a small group of black and Hispanic House Democrats who vote a moderate-and occasionally conservative-line suggests that something very encouraging is going on in black and Hispanic America. It shows, too, that the strife on Capitol Hill these days can be traced more to rank partisanship than to sincerely held ideological differences.

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