Rep. John Boehner, the House GOP leader, spoke at the American Enterprise Institute this afternoon. His topic: the public’s frustration with Congress and how he hopes to win back their trust. Boehner, a former small-business owner in Ohio, framed his approach to governing as an investment from the people. During his times as a businessman, Boehner says that he always felt like he had an “obligation” to the “paying customer.” As he looks at the current mess in Washington, Boehner says that he feels that “same sense of obligation and determination.”
Boehner, who is widely believed to be on track to be the next House speaker should the GOP make major gains this fall, took care to tell the audience of think-tank scholars and reporters about his party’s new approach to politics. “I’ve been here nearly 20 years, so I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly,” he says. “And lately, there’s been plenty of ugly. Americans have every right to be fed up — they do.”
But what I won’t accept — what I refuse to accept — is that we can simply walk away and let our government continue to drift — this government our forbears sacrificed everything to build.
The mission of the United States Congress is to serve the American people — and today, due in part to institutional barriers that have been in place for decades, that mission goes unfulfilled.
These wounds have been self-inflicted by both parties, and if we do not fix them, it’s possible no one will.
In the Constitution, the House of Representatives is the first institution of the first branch of government — the body closest to the people.
That is an awesome responsibility. We should take pride in it, and be humbled by it.
Though he calls it “broken,” Boehner says the House, “more than any other part of our government,” remains “the most direct voice of the people.”
The House finds itself in a state of emergency. The institution does not function, does not deliberate, and seems incapable of acting on the will of the people.
From the floor to the committee level, the integrity of the House has been compromised.
The battle of ideas — the very lifeblood of the House — is virtually nonexistent.
Leaders overreach because the rules allow them to. Legislators duck their responsibilities because the rules help them to.
And when the rules don’t suit the majority’s purposes, they are just ignored.
There’s no accountability, and there are no consequences. Whether we here in Washington believe this or not, the people clearly do.
“The dysfunction in Congress is not new,” Boehner continues, “both parties bear the blame for it. But the dysfunction has now reached a tipping point — a point at which none of us can credibly deny that it is having a negative impact on the people we serve.”
To fix it — to make the House “function again” — will not be easy. Boehner says that a solution “cannot be reduced to one reform or toolkit of reforms.” Instead, the Republican says that a “sustained effort” to enforce the rule of law and the Constitution is needed.
Here’s one of his big ideas: Get rid of “comprehensive” spending bills.
Let’s do away with the concept of “comprehensive” spending bills. Let’s break them up, to encourage scrutiny, and make spending cuts easier.
Rather than pairing agencies and departments together, let them come to the House floor individually, to be judged on their own merit.
Members shouldn’t have to vote for big spending increases at the Labor Department in order to fund Health and Human Services.
Members shouldn’t have to vote for big increases at the Commerce Department just because they support NASA. Each Department and agency should justify itself each year to the full House and Senate, and be judged on its own.
For decades, the word “comprehensive” has been used as a positive adjective in Washington. I would respectfully submit that those days are behind us.
The American people are not well-served by “comprehensive.”
In an era of trillion-dollar deficits, we need a tighter focus; one that places an emphasis on getting it right, and less emphasis on getting it done quickly.
Don’t assume I’m singling out the appropriators; I’m not. Over decades, in my view, authorizing committees in the House and Senate have also abdicated their responsibility, often authorizing billions of dollars knowing full well they will never actually be appropriated. Interest groups then lobby Congress to “fully fund” the program, systematically creating pressure on the legislature to drive up spending.
This has to stop.
Spending cuts are another key focus:
Authorizing Committees should be held to the same standard as the appropriations committee: authorize what we can afford, and hold agencies to account for results.
We should also consider developing a “cut as you go” rule that would apply to any member proposing the creation of new government programs or benefits.
Very simply, under this “CutGO” rule, if it is your intention to create a new government program, you must also terminate or reduce spending on an existing government program of equal or greater size — in the very same bill.
Just this week, the majority leadership brought 85 different suspension bills to the floor on a single day — many of them creating new government programs, some of which had been subject to little if any scrutiny or debate.
If we’d had a “CutGO” rule in place this week, roughly half of these 85 bills would never have made it to the floor.
CutGO was conceived by my friend and colleague Roy Blunt. And as he put it, “let’s turn the activists for big government on each other, instead of letting them gang up on the taxpayer.”
Through this public discussion, we might end up finding out that neither program has a whole lot of merit in the first place. It may sound simplistic, but sometimes that’s the best place to start. Oversight is another area of focus:
We should direct every committee to make its oversight responsibilities a top priority, and to make no apologies for it. Both parties should work together to ensure each program is meeting congressional intent and serving the national interest.
Republicans should not start from the assumption that all government is bad; nor should Democrats start from the assumption that all government is good.
Oversight should be conducted by uniform standards: What’s the purpose of this program? What’s its’ responsibility? Is this the best use of taxpayers’ time and money?
Of course, if we’re truly serious about being responsible again on spending, we need to do something about earmarks.
As we know too well, earmarks are the often-questionable spending projects that are slipped into bills with little scrutiny.
They run the gamut from bridges to nowhere and “monuments to me” to sewer projects and art exhibits. They ride on authorizing bills, appropriations bills, and tax bills. An entire lobbying industry has been created around them. And they’ve become a symbol of a spending process that has broken faith with the American people.
House Republicans voted to stop the process this year — on our own, without cooperation from Democrats — so that we could begin reforming how Washington spends taxpayers’ money.
Like the decision to adopt the moratorium in the first place, the future of the moratorium will be a collective decision, made by our members.
But on the question of earmarking, my colleagues and my constituents know where I stand.
I told my constituents in 1990: If you believe it’s important to have a representative who will go to Washington and raid the federal Treasury on your behalf, you should probably vote for someone else.
I’ve had a personal ‘no earmarks’ policy since I began serving in Congress, and I always will.
“I believe it is our obligation to end earmarking as we know it,” Boehner says. He pledges to “bring fundamental change to the manner in which Washington spends taxpayers’ money” and to “continue to be an advocate for reforms to ensure that happens.”
Boehner would also like to push for committee reform. “We should also require that all committees — especially the Rules Committee – webcast their proceedings and post complete transcripts online — with obvious exceptions for those panels dealing with state secrets and classified information,” he says. “To ensure there is proper oversight, Congress should also review its internal committee structure and eliminate duplicative programs and jurisdictions. This hasn’t been done in 15 years. Think about that.”
“We can’t ask members to become more engaged if they sit on three different committees and more than a handful of subcommittees,” Boehner adds. “We currently have rules regarding member limitations, but of course they’re frequently waived to have warm bodies in those slots. We need to rethink that.”