Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The importance of changing the rules

It's not sexy and it is not an easily understandable talking point, but the GOP is on to something important when they talk about changing the rules on how Congress passes bills. Having observed the Democrats crush through enormous bill after bill without having read them with Nancy Pelosi telling us that we have to pass the bill to find out what is in the bill, the American people may understand and fully support such technical changes within Congress. With the Democrats not even passing a Budget Resolution this year, it is clearly time to revisit the rules under which COngress passes through spending increases with little debate or understanding of what is in the huge omnibus bills headed our way during the lame duck session. Some of the ideas that the GOP has inserted into their pledge, as the WSJ writes today, would actually make a great difference.
Another good idea is Mr. Boehner's vow to publish the text of all bills online at least three days prior to a vote, as well as to allow open rules on spending bills. Former GOP leader Tom DeLay gave short shrift to open rules, but Nancy Pelosi has seen that bad habit and raised, making this the first Congress in memory not to consider a single bill under an open amendment process. This has barred spending hawks like Arizona's Jeff Flake from putting embarrassing spending items up for a floor vote.

Mr. Boehner also proposed to break spending bills into smaller bills for each federal agency or function rather than piling education with health care, for example, into a giant log-rolling exercise. The man who would be Speaker didn't say whether he'd let reformers like Mr. Flake onto the Appropriations Committee, where the spending culture is ingrained. But he ought to do so, and we'd recommend that he also impose term limits for Appropriators, so it wouldn't be a life-time pork-barrel sinecure.

Most intriguingly, Mr. Boehner suggested that "we ought to start at square one and give serious consideration to revisiting, and perhaps rewriting, the 1974 Budget Act." Now he's getting somewhere. That law, passed over the veto of a Watergate-weakened Richard Nixon, further rigged the budget process to abet spending. It killed the President's impoundment power not to spend money, and it established the annual "budget baseline" that makes spending increases automatic. Thus even a reduction in the amount of spending increase in a program becomes a budget "cut" that special interests can attack. Mr. Boehner should consult Budget ranking Member Paul Ryan and former Member Chris Cox for reform ideas.

The larger insight here is that Democrats have organized Congress and written its rules to aid and abet their policy priorities. During their last time in the majority, Republicans didn't do enough to rewrite those rules to assist their ostensible goal of limiting government power and reducing spending and taxes. They shouldn't make the same mistake again.

In addition to rewriting the Budget Act, Republicans need to assert control over the scoring conventions at the Congressional Budget Office that typically underestimate spending—see ObamaCare. Ditto for the rules at the Joint Tax Committee that underestimate the impact of tax changes on taxpayer behavior and economic growth.
It is a joke that Congress sends prospective bills to the CBO for scoring and forces them to accept unbelievable premises like imagining levels of economic growth that will not be happening. Or, as we saw with ObamaCare, they force CBO to include projected and undetermined cuts in Medicare that we all know will never happen. It turned the CBO scoring into a total fiction that the politicians could then grab onto and claim that such fantasies were indeed legitimate predictions of how much a bill would cost over time.

If the GOP truly passes such changes, it would have long-term implications that could make a substantial difference in how they do things up there on Capitol Hill. And now is the time to do that.

3 comments:

equitus said...

I read some summaries of Boehner's ideas and I was impressed. I haven't thought much about him previously, guessing him to be just another pol. But these proposals demonstrate ingenuity and integrity.

I just hope it's all not another illusion.

LarryD said...

I've been grousing about Impoundment for years.

It needs to be made an explicit power of the executive (so Congress can't do away with it by statute). I'd also formalize it this way:

1. The President has to notify Congress in writing what funds are being impounded.
2. Congress can override the same way it can override a presidential veto, with a super-majority of both houses. But each funding item has to voted on individually, not as a package. And they have to be roll-call votes. And published.

Freeven said...

These are all serious problems that need to be addressed, but they've been serious problems for years and we've seen no meaningful reform. There's little reason to believe things will be different this time around. It's more likely we'll see token changes and business continue as usual. Take the idea of publishing the text of bills online for three days before voting. That sounds nice, but it's pretty meaningless. Would three days, or three weeks, have made any difference with the health care bill? Or the financial bill? Or the "stimulus" bill?

Congress is broken, but it's naive to think they are going to clean up their own act when they have every incentive to do what they've always done. It's like gerrymandering. By definition it's an insidious practice. Yet each side is happy to take advantage of it whenever they get the chance.

Color me highly skeptical and hoping, for once, to be proved utterly wrong.