On the eve of the House Republicans’ official release of their governing agenda for the 112th Congress, House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio took questions from National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is the point of this agenda?
Rep. John Boehner: Washington hasn’t been listening to the people. And as we state in the preamble of the Pledge to America, when Washington isn’t listening, the American people have a right to demand a new governing agenda. The Pledge is our statement on the immediate steps that need to be taken to put us on the road to the smaller, less costly, more accountable government the American people are demanding. Led by Kevin McCarthy [R., Calif.], who did an incredible job on this, we spent months talking to the American people about their priorities and concerns. And then, using that input, we built a new governing agenda to address those priorities through our principles of freedom and smaller government. We said back at the beginning of the year that the American people wouldn’t accept an agenda that was just handed down to them by a bunch of politicians. It was important to go out beyond the Beltway and engage Americans in a dialogue first. We have to demonstrate we know the American people are in charge.
Lopez: Is it, in your mind, an anti-Obama/anti-Pelosi/anti-Reid agenda? A response to failure? Would you use the word “failure”?
Rep. Boehner: I haven’t hesitated to use the word failure to describe the economic policies of the president and his current team. I’m a former small businessman, and before I came to serve in Congress I saw firsthand the way government can crush job creation in this country. Uncertainty kills jobs, and under this administration, there hasn’t been anything but uncertainty for small businesses and private-sector job creators. The Pledge to America is focused first and foremost on jobs, cutting spending, and reforming Congress. The American people are demanding action to end uncertainty for small businesses and help our economy get back to creating jobs. And at the core of the Pledge is an idea Washington just hasn’t tried before: the idea that the path to recovery lies in making government smaller instead of making it bigger. To help our economy get back to creating jobs, the job-killing economic uncertainty afflicting small businesses has to be eliminated. The “stimulus” spending spree in Washington has to end. And Congress itself has to be reformed. To help our economy create jobs, we need to stop all of the coming tax hikes, cut spending, and begin a drive for smaller, less costly government — and to do this, we need to change Congress itself. The president keeps asking for new ideas. Well, this is a new idea, and it’s a pretty big one. And by the way, where’s the “new” in more stimulus spending, more taxes, and more regulation?
Lopez: What are you most excited about in the agenda? What’s most important in it?
Rep. Boehner: The American people just reject the notion that we can just simply tax, borrow, and spend our way to prosperity. And in my view, one of the most exciting things about the Pledge to America is that for Americans who are concerned about the economy, it offers a new way forward that hasn’t been tried in Washington. It’s an approach focused on cutting spending instead of increasing spending, and eliminating uncertainty for the private-sector innovators and entrepreneurs who create jobs in this country. And it also acknowledges that if we’re going to be successful in reining in spending and reducing the size of government, we have to change the way Congress itself works. As Kevin McCarthy often says, structure dictates behavior. Right now all the rules and structures are rigged in favor of increased spending and minimal public scrutiny. We need to reverse that. Having a Congress that’s basically pre-programmed to spend money and prevent spending cuts is part of the reason we’re in the mess we’re in.
Lopez: Do you worry at all that it looks like the Contract, 2.0?
Rep. Boehner: Some comparisons are going to be inevitable, but this is a different kind of document, put together in a different way. It’s a different time. The Contract was rolled out on the Capitol steps. Doing the same thing today wouldn’t have fit. Job creation is at the top of this agenda, which was built by going outside the Beltway and listening to the people. We wanted to underscore that point.
Lopez: What did you learn during the listening portion of this agenda-development exercise? Anything that surprised you?
Rep. Boehner: What has continued to amaze me is the intensity level out there. I’ve never seen the American people engaged in their government like this before. And there are things in the Pledge that reflect that unprecedented level of involvement. We’re calling for all bills that come to the floor to include a citation of their constitutional authority. That’s something John Shadegg [R., Ariz.] has championed for years, and he was onto something. Outside the Beltway, this is something that has incredibly strong support among the people. People want their government to reconnect with the Constitution and the principles upon which our government was founded. It’s very real.
Lopez: Cutting ten percent of the budget is going to hurt, isn’t it?
Rep. Boehner: We’re calling for an immediate cut in non-security discretionary spending to 2008 levels, which was the last year before all the stimulus spending sprees, bailouts, and takeovers. “Pre-binge levels” is how one economist we talked to puts it. That will save taxpayers $100 billion in the first year alone. And we’re calling for real, enforceable spending caps to keep a lid on the growth of government going forward. This won’t be easy, but the alternative is unacceptable. We just can’t keep spending money and passing the bill to our children and grandchildren the way we’ve been doing. All this spending is hurting us, and not just in the long term. It’s also hurting us in the short term. The failure this year by the House to even debate a budget, much less pass one, sent a disastrous signal about our nation’s ability to deal with the fiscal challenges we’re facing.
Lopez: There are a number of items in your agenda that are procedural but ambitious. Are you looking to fundamentally change how the House operates, long-term?
Rep. Boehner: This gets back to my earlier point: If we’re serious about helping our economy create jobs, we need to stop the coming tax hikes, cut spending, and recommit ourselves to smaller government. The way Congress currently operates is rigged to make all of those goals more difficult. It’s a lot easier to increase spending than it is to actually cut spending. That’s just fundamentally backwards. In the coming days you’ll hear us provide more detail about the changes we think need to be made immediately to fix these problems.
Lopez: The question I hear most often is: “Will Republicans mess up like they did last time?” Well, will you?
Rep. Boehner: We’ve had a long time to think about how we’d do things differently if we were back in the majority. I’ve challenged our members for years to stop and ask themselves: If we found ourselves back in the majority today, would we be any different? And I think everyone has taken that challenge seriously. I think a lot of what we’re laying out in the Pledge to America shows it.
Lopez: You’ve never taken an earmark. Why is that important to you? Why is that important to a GOP-led House?
Rep. Boehner: I’ve always been upfront with people about this. I told the people of my district during my first campaign that if it was important to them to have a representative who would go to Washington and raid the federal Treasury on their behalf, they should probably vote for someone else. Cutting unnecessary government spending is one of the central pledges made in this document. I’ve been clear that a Republican majority in the House will not return to business as usual with respect to the earmark process, which is fundamentally broken.
Lopez: The agenda does not mention one of the most contentious issues of the day: protecting the institution of marriage. Why?
Rep. Boehner: Actually it does. The preamble section of the Pledge states that we’re going to honor families, traditional marriage, and life. The focus of the document is on jobs, cutting spending, and reforming government, but we’re also clear about our principles.
Lopez: Why is the Hyde expansion you have in the agenda important? Isn’t it going to drive some members and interest groups mad?
Rep. Boehner: The American people are overwhelmingly opposed to having their tax dollars used to pay for abortions. Frankly, I don’t think this is even controversial. It’s the will of the people. Back in June I had the honor of addressing the National Right to Life convention in Pittsburgh, and I made clear that codifying the Hyde amendment was going to be a priority for us. And it will be. The Pledge to America reflects our commitment to life.
Lopez: Is this an agenda you hope Americans who consider themselves part of the tea-party movement can get enthusiastic about?
Rep. Boehner: I hope so. The Pledge to America was built by listening to the people, and that certainly includes the millions of Americans who are involved in the tea-party movement. I said earlier this year that Republicans wouldn’t try to co-opt the tea-party movement, but that we were going to listen to them, stand with them, and walk among them. I’ve been to a number of tea-party events around the country, and frankly I think the movement has been an incredibly healthy thing for our democracy.
Lopez: Do you feel confident being held accountable — should you become Speaker Boehner — for this agenda?
Rep. Boehner: I don’t make any assumptions about what the future holds. But I’m very pleased with the work of our conference on the Pledge to America, and I can tell you with absolute confidence that we are committed to getting these things done. If Speaker Pelosi and Harry Reid and President Obama would allow it, we could get them done right now.
Lopez: Why the Sterling, Va. venue?
Rep. Boehner: We chose a small business because jobs are the number-one priority of the American people. And small businesses are the engine of job creation in America. Tart Lumber is a quintessential, typical American family-run small business. This is not the kind of agenda you unveil on the Capitol steps. We wanted to underscore the jobs point, and get outside the Beltway, because this document was built by listening to the people outside of Washington.