Politics & Policy

‘Tread Boldly’

If the GOP wins in November, the 112th Congress could be quite a ride.

‘My analogy is it’s fourth and goal, and we’re going for it, and they know it,” says Rep. Mike Pence (R., Ind.) of the midterm battle between Republicans and Democrats.

“If you’re on the ballot, the next election is always the most important election of your lifetime,” Pence joked, leaning back in his chair in the library at National Review’s New York office. “But I actually believe this is perhaps one of the most important elections in the life of this nation, because either we’re going to start to turn the ship of state back to the practice and principles of limited government — or the Democrats may hang on long enough to consolidate their gains of 2006 and 2008. At the end of the day, I think it’s going to be hard fought. They understand the significance of this election. We understand it.”

In a wide-ranging conversation with National Review’s editors, the chairman of the House Republican Conference said his members would be aggressive in the final months of the 111th Congress — pushing for a vote on extending the Bush tax cuts before the midterms and standing united against a potential kamikaze lame-duck session — and he promised an ambitious 2011 should the Republicans take over in the 112th, outlining an agenda that includes everything from defunding Obamacare to “ending earmarks as we know them.”

Apart from getting the economy “moving,” Pence said, a Republican majority in the House would have “no higher priority” than the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, “lock, stock, and barrel.”

“In the meantime, while we pursue that objective, we are going to use every means at our disposal to prevent implementation of Obamacare through the power of the purse,” he added.

The promise to repeal and replace the health-care bill is included in the recently unveiled Pledge to America, which Pence defended as a “good start.” But he acknowledged that the Pledge included only those elements on which there was “consensus” within the Republican caucus, avoiding specifics on topics like reform of entitlements and earmarks.

When pushed on whether House Republicans would go beyond the Pledge and embrace some or all of the aggressive steps on entitlements advocated by Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wisc.) in his “Roadmap for America’s Future,” Pence was guardedly optimistic. “My counsel to our team after the first of the year is that we tread boldly,” he said. “Trust the American people to stand with us when we lead the country back to fiscal responsibility.”

Pence promised to make next year’s budget a battleground for fiscal restraint, and he expressed the hope that Ryan himself would help lead the fight as newly minted chairman of the Budget Committee.

“I think the American people realize we’re going broke,” Pence said. “The average annual deficits of the Bush administration have become the average monthly deficits of this administration.”

On earmarks, Pence was bolder, expressing his belief that “House Republicans are determined to end earmarks as we know them.”

He rehearsed the Pledge’s commitment to bringing all spending bills to the House floor under “open” rules, wherein any member can propose amendments. This would stand in stark contrast to the regime of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), who has presided over what Republicans believe to be the first Congress in history to bring every bill to the floor under a closed rule.

It would also allow hawks to shine a spotlight on pork-barrel spending. As he put it, “Members would be empowered to go down and say, ‘Oh, you have a bridge that’s $250 million, and it goes to an island where five people live? I think I’ll go to the floor and offer an amendment to that. And before I go to the floor and offer an amendment, I’m going to call some friends in the Fourth Estate and make sure they know.’”

Furthermore, Pence vowed to fight to end the ability of small, opaque conference committees to “airdrop” earmarks into bills after they have already passed both houses. “I’ve actually seen bills — big appropriations bills — you could turn the pages and find handwritten notes like, ‘$10 million to XYZ project.’ No initials, no anything, it’s just scribbled along the margins,” he said. “That’s a horrendous process, and it has to be fundamentally changed.”

Pence also expressed his hope that the “culture” of the Appropriations Committee could be changed by changing the Republican lineup. “Regardless of the outcome of the election, we’ll be making committee appointments,” he said, “and my ambition is to see a number of our budget hawks put on the Appropriations Committee.”

Asked if he thought a freshman class of fire-breathing, tea-party-backed conservatives unfamiliar with House norms and conventions would lead to friction with the old guard of the GOP caucus, Pence was unworried. “Whether or not it’s good for the Republican party,” he said, “I think it’s going to be good for America.

“This new generation of men and women is coming out of, oftentimes, competitive primaries. This year’s election process has been separating out men and women of conviction and courage and principle, and that can be a very good thing for the country.”

What Pence is worried about is that the Democrats might initiate a nothing-to-lose lame-duck session should Republicans emerge victorious on Election Day, pushing through a grab bag of previously stalled liberal policy priorities, including the Employee Free Choice Act, also known as card check, which would take away the secret ballot for union elections. “If the Democratic majority gets shown the door,” he said, “I think you could see a full-court press.”

Pence vowed that his conference would, in the coming weeks, “make it very, very clear to both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue” that passing landmark legislation after a congressional realignment would be “a betrayal of public trust.”

– Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.