December 20, 2004

December 20, 2004 | WebMemo on Federal Budget

House Rules: An Important Step for Spending Restraint

Right now in the House of Representatives, Members of Congress are engaged in deliberations that could have substantial impact on the next two legislative years. These deliberations concern reforming the internal rules that govern how the House will operate during the 109th Congress. While seemingly arcane, well-crafted House rules could be effective tools to promote spending restraint. As Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), has explained, "House conservatives believe it's time to put our fiscal house in order, and everything in Congress begins with the House rules."[1]


Federal spending surpassed $20,000 per household for the first time last year.[2] While politicians on both sides of the aisle have criticized Congress's recent fiscal irresponsibility, the past year has been marked by a great deal of rhetoric and very little action to curb spending. A rules change would add substance to these calls for fiscal restraint.


Rules That Can Make a Difference

Currently, fiscally conscious representatives can raise a point of order against measure that would surpass 302(b) spending limits (which are set in the budget process that precedes appropriations), but this is not the great procedural barrier against excessive spending that it seems. Leadership has been able to bring to the floor appropriation bills that are more expensive than 302(b) benchmarks by using a rule to waive the point of order and the vote that it would require. One of the rule changes supported by the RSC's Reps. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) and Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) would fix this loophole by forcing a vote on any such waiver. With this requirement in place, the political cost of voting to break spending limits would be significantly higher than it has been.


A rule change to require a three-fifths supermajority to increase spending on mandatory entitlement programs has support among both conservatives and moderates. In addition to Feeney and Hensarling, Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), head of the moderate Mainstream Republicans, supports the idea that more than a bare majority of representatives should be required to put a new or expanded entitlement on the books. Were such a rule in place during the past Congress, the 2003 Medicare reform bill, the target of much bipartisan criticism for its cost, would probably not have become law.


The RSC also hope to enact parts of the budget process reform package its members introduced last session through rule changes.[3] One of these rules would establish Family Budget Protection Accounts, which would allow floor amendments to redirect spending to deficit reduction, and another would create a reserve fund for emergency spending. Other changes under consideration include repealing the Gephardt rule, which lets the House duck votes to increase the debt limit; requiring that every bill be accompanied by a cost estimate; and forcing a roll-call vote on any legislation with a price tag over $50 million.


These proposals, all promising, represent only the beginning of necessary congressional reform. Additional rules, for example, could be enacted against riders on appropriation bills, the funding of unauthorized programs, and conference reports that include earmarks not previously approved in either chamber.


The Proof is in the Pudding

Sensible procedural reforms in the House are overdue. The members who are leading this charge to change House rules to promote fiscal responsibility ought to be applauded both for identifying a root cause of spending excess and for expending political to reform the system. The Republican leadership, which is again articulating the need for spending restraint, should enact these reforms to get the 109th Congress off to an auspicious start.

Keith Miller is a Research Assistant in, and Alison Acosta Fraser is the Director of, the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

[1] Susan Davis, "Conservatives Circulate 10 Proposed House Rules Changes," National Journal Congress Daily, December 8, 2004, at

[2] Brian M. Riedl, "$2,000 per Household: The Highest Level of Federal Spending Since World War II," Heritage Backgrounder No. 1710, December 3, 2003, at

[3] Brian M. Riedl, "Better Budget Reform: A Guide to the Family Budget Protection Act," Heritage Backgrounder No. 1758, May 14, 2004, at

About the Author

Alison Acosta Fraser Senior Fellow and Director of Government Finance Programs
Domestic and Economic Policy