WASHINGTON — In a wide-ranging speech Thursday, House minority leader John Boehner (R) of Ohio said that the 111th Congress was “not so much concluding as it is collapsing,” and signaled how Republicans would change the House if voters give them back the majority on Nov. 2.
Republicans have hunkered down in solid opposition to nearly all of the Obama agenda from health-care reform to climate change legislation. If Congress is broken, Democrats say, it’s because Republicans won’t let it work.
But Congressman Boehner — now in reach of becoming the next Speaker, if Republicans do as well in midterm elections as surveys suggest — is proposing a way to break the culture of gridlock and out-of-control spending that he says both parties have had a hand in creating.
“These wounds have been self-inflicted by both parties, and if we do not fix them, it’s possible no one will,” he told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Amid grand designs, however, was also a note of calculation. If Boehner is to become Speaker, it will be on the on the back of scores of freshmen Republicans, many steeped in “tea party” principles. In this light, his speech Thursday also served as an attempt to offer them the hope that, with him as Speaker, they can begin to remake Congress – and the country – in the image of their small-government ideals.
A roadmap to ease gridlock
As it is, gridlock is so severe that the House is in a state of emergency, he said – a view shared by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. He noted that even simple, constitutionally assigned tasks, such as passing annual spending bills or a budget to set national priorities, didn’t get done this year. Moreover, Congress has not yet gotten around to preventing the Bush-era tax cuts from expiring on Dec. 31, he added.
Boehner acknowledged how his own party had fallen short when it was in power from 1995 to 2006. Both parties presided over fiscal recklessness and a breakdown of regular order, he said. The antidote: a fair debate and a fair vote, he said.
“The ultimate measure of whether we have a functioning House is not bipartisanship. Our focus shouldn’t be on working across party lines for its own sake,” he said. “The true test is whether our ideas, policies, and values are able to stand the test of a fair debate and a fair vote. And sadly, that’s something we have not seen in the House for some time.”
Boehner’s proposed fixes include:
- Instead of dealing with 12 “comprehensive” annual spending bills, break them up so Congress holds each department and agency accountable on its own.
- Consider a “cut as you go” rule that requires any member proposing new government programs or benefits to find existing programs to cut.
- Restore congressional oversight of each program to identify its purpose and whether it represents the best use of taxpayers’ time and money.
- Require that members be given at least three days notice on all bills, and that committee votes be posted online within 24 hours.
- Require that all committees webcast their proceedings and post complete transcripts online, with the exception of panels dealing with classified information.
These procedural changes would help restore transparency and a civil process, he said: “We should open things up and let the battle of ideas help break down the scar tissue between the two parties.”
Serious reform or pre-election posturing?
Of course, such complaints are a common theme of parties out of power, as are pledges to restore those rights once in power. “A new majority finds it convenient to operate in the way the old majority did to get things done,” says Donald Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
What might be different this time is the influence of tea party insurgents who have often tilted against Washington Republicans as well as Democrats. In his speech Thursday, Boehner was seeking to highlight how he might try to change Congress to allow tea partyers their wish: to shrink a government that has only grown.
Moreover, procedure is a hot topic among tea partyers who bristle at Congress’s propensity to move fast – even before the contents of a bill can be digested. “Read the Bill” is a common chant or T-shirt slogan.
Tea party activists also often cite the US Constitution, and so did Boehner.
“We always hearing members of Congress talking about swearing an oath to represent their constituents when in reality the only oath we take is to the Constitution,” he said.
Republicans propose requiring that every bill that comes to the floor contain a clear citation of constitutional authority. “If we cannot do this much, we should put down the pen and stop right there,” he said.
Boehner said he expects resistance. But “some changes have to be made, and we can’t keep kicking the can down the road. We’ve run out of road,” he said.
House Democrats responded by challenging the GOP’s “dismal record” in their years in power and, more recently, in blocking the majority’s reform efforts.
“When the GOP was in charge, they quadrupled earmarks and legislated behind closed doors on behalf of corporate special interests,” said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “They want to talk about process. We want to talk about progress for the American people.”