Politics & Policy

If the House GOP Ruled

Rep. Paul Ryan holds a copy of the GOP budget proposal at a press conference on April 5, 2011.
A thought experiment on serious rollback of overweening Washington power.

Let’s conduct a little thought experiment. Imagine that the Republican majority in the House of Representatives ran things in Washington. Unilaterally. No need to negotiate with the Senate or assemble two-thirds majorities to overturn those pesky presidential vetoes.

Imagine that legislation commanding majority support in the current House would become law immediately upon passage. What might our nation and our world look like?

This is not an altogether quixotic exercise. A thorough review of roll-call votes cast since the 2010 electoral upheaval allows us to approximate the world view that guides the 243-member House Republican caucus.

Such a review reveals a conception of America — and America’s role in the world — as ambitious, and conservative, as that of any previous congressional majority.

#ad#Indeed, from a political perspective many of these votes qualify as truly heroic (or, for those hewing to a leftist viewpoint, truly demonic). Viewed in its entirety, the agenda overwhelms. It would: repeal Obamacare; place a firm limit on how much in taxes Washington can take from our paychecks; require federal bureaucracies to think before they regulate; restore considerable authority and decision-making power to state governments; and alter the structural DNA of two of the Big Three entitlement programs — Medicare and Medicaid. (Fundamental overhaul of Social Security, it seems, will have to wait.).

In a nutshell, the GOP House agenda would place the federal government on a fiscally sustainable path without eviscerating national security. America would reclaim its status as one of the freest and most opportunity-laden economies in the world. There would be real and enforceable limits on the power of the federal government. And our ability to defend America’s interests around the world would be robust and enduring.

If you think this sounds like the equivalent of a second American Revolution, you’re right.

So, what exactly happened in our thought experiment?

First, the 112th Congress repealed every jot and tittle of Obamacare on its first day of business. All the House Republicans, joined by three Democrats, voted to undo the single largest expansion of federal regulatory, fiscal, and taxing authority in American history. Not a bad start.

Next, the House Republicans approved, en masse, the budget blueprint sponsored by Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.). “No budget in decades,” my colleague Alison Fraser wrote, “has had the potential for so fundamentally improving the nation’s prosperity and restoring its vast promise.”

Within it, one finds many transformative ideas. Among them:

Medicare and Medicaid are reformed to blunt much of the fiscal carnage they are projected to inflict on future generations. If House Republicans ruled the world, Medicare would be restructured so that each senior received a fixed government contribution to help pay for a portion of the health plan of his or her choice. Meanwhile, Medicaid’s open-ended financing arrangement, which violates every reasonable conception of federalism, would give way to block grants with a fixed federal contribution to the states. In exchange, states would enjoy greater flexibility to design their programs to better serve those in need. The tax code is completely overhauled. Special-interest tax deductions, credits, and exclusions are eliminated in favor of a growth-inspiring across-the-board reduction in tax rates. The top tax rate drops to 25 percent on both individual and corporate income, placing the United States squarely within the international norm and making us much more competitive in the global economy. Except for defense, the remaining areas of federal spending are frozen — hard — at pre-Obama (2008) spending levels. This reduces projected spending by a cool $1.6 trillion over the next decade.

Collectively, these reforms shook official Washington to its core, registering at 9.0 on the political and policy Richter scales. Significantly, they garnered the support of all but four House Republicans.

Next in the majority’s sights: the suffocating blanket of federal regulatory activity, which has dismayed and befuddled entrepreneurs, throttled job creation, and sapped the economic recovery of virtually all vitality. Here the House Republicans cast some of the most politically courageous votes imaginable, votes that their opponents will undoubtedly try to exploit relentlessly.

In 2011 the House majority voted literally dozens of times to roll back federal regulatory excesses in areas affecting energy production, the workplace, the power of labor unions, higher education, and federal lands. Except for some elements of the union agenda, House Republicans remained remarkably united around the premise that the mounting regulatory burden placed on American businesses and consumers must be reduced.

Efforts to rein in the Environmental Protection Agency dominated the rollback agenda. Over 90 percent of House Republicans remained united on restoring common sense to a wide variety of environmental standards, ranging from fossil-fuel combustion waste, to dredged fill material, to air-quality standards for particulate matter, to mercury emissions from cement plants, to dust kicked up by routine farm operations. Ditto for bills addressing the need to construct terminals to process liquefied natural gas, plans to drill for oil and natural gas off our coasts, and the regulation of carbon-dioxide emissions. Each time, the overwhelming majority of House Republicans voted to exert congressional authority and confront the runaway administrative state head-on.

#page#Even regulatory efforts specific to a region — the sort of politically sensitive regulations that typically cause even the most steadfast advocates of rational regulation to go wobbly — won House approval. These include rollbacks of regulations affecting surface coal-mining operations in Appalachia, water-quality standards in Florida, watershed plans for the Chesapeake Bay, and the environmentalists’ campaign to remove a series of dams on the Klamath River in California.

House Republicans led the charge to curb the power of organized labor in several instances, including votes to require waiting periods in union elections, to bar Transportation Security Administration employees from unionizing, and to reverse the National Labor Relations Board’s unprecedented decision to bar Boeing from opening a billion-dollar non-union facility in South Carolina. And let’s not forget the effort by Education and Workplace Committee chairman John Kline (R., Minn.) to undo the Obama administration’s regulatory vendetta against for-profit schools, the only institutions of higher education that, by their nature, must respond directly to the needs of students as consumers.

#ad#House Republicans also approved the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act — a bill restoring balance between the legislative and executive branches in the regulatory arena. REINS requires that any regulation that would have a significant economic impact cannot take effect without congressional approval — specifically, any regulation that would have an “annual economic effect greater than $100 million; . . . cause a major increase in costs or prices; or . . . have a significant adverse effect on competition, employment, investment, productivity, innovation, or U.S. economic competitiveness.”

This little thought experiment makes one thing quite clear: Gone are the days when dozens of House Republicans would raise ideological objections to efforts to limit the size and scope of government.

Today’s Republican leaders face an entirely new source of intra-party tension: disputes not over ideology but over the best tactical means to accomplish shared conservative policy goals. Accusations that certain Republicans were nothing more than ideological renegades (“tax collectors for the welfare state”) have given way to vocal debates over how a House Republican majority can outmaneuver a Democratic-controlled Senate and White House and achieve the maximum policy leverage from “must pass” legislation such as debt-ceiling increases, patches to the Alternative Minimum Tax, or end-of-year spending bills. Should the advocates of smaller government have government shutdowns in their tactical toolboxes? What policy “hostages” are acceptable to barter in exchange for conservative reforms? What about the next time the debt ceiling needs to be increased? And so on.

Ronald Reagan’s policy legacy, it seems, is complete. From top to bottom, the House GOP is now a coherently conservative party. The old doctrinal disputes, however, have been supplanted by equally thorny differences over tactics.

— Michael G. Franc is vice president of government studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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