There are high-profile actions that the new Republican Congress can take to improve governance in the next two years, and there are low-profile ones. Both are necessary. The low-profile moves are just as important — and they ought to become a priority for the Republican Study Committee (the House’s large conservative caucus) and for outside conservative groups looking for votes to score in their ratings.
The RSC meets on Tuesday to choose new leaders, and the small-bore actions ought to be part of their discussions. First, though, let’s consider some wise words about high-profile action, courtesy of House majority whip (and former RSC chair) Steve Scalise, of Louisiana. I visited with Scalise on Election Day as he walked between houses in his traditional door-to-door campaigning (during which some voters reacted to him as if he were Elvis or Brad Pitt — but that’s another story).
“I’m excited about the opportunity finally to move bills through both the House and the Senate, and put them on the president’s desk, that will get our economy moving again and spending under control,” Scalise says. “We have to be smart about having an aggressive first-hundred-days plan where we are moving bills through to the president’s desk that are good conservative policy that have populist appeal. Things like the Keystone Pipeline [note: approved yet again by the House this past Friday]. People across the country want to see it happen, and yet the Senate’s been blocking it.
“Then there’s a lot of other good economic policy, much of it energy-related,” he says. “Getting into some of these regulations that are killing jobs in America. People are seeing more and more of these destructive policies from agencies like the EPA and the IRS and others that are not only costing us jobs that are being shipped to other countries, but they are increasing the cost of things like higher electricity prices because of some of these policies that make no sense. So, bills to rein some of that in, that actually have bipartisan support: You can get those to the president’s desk. . . . Put those bills on Barack Obama’s desk where he finally has to make some tough decisions.”
Then came the best specifics: “Of course, getting into the health-care law, there are a lot of things that can make it to his desk that he will have a tough time vetoing — starting with a bill to hold him to his campaign promise that was broken, [that] if you like what you have, you can keep it. [We need] the bill that says anybody who’s got a health-care plan they like, some unelected bureaucrat can’t take it away from them because of Obamacare. If that bill’s on his desk, what does he do with it? How can he veto a bill that actually enshrines into law his most broken promise of his presidency?”
Scalise has the right idea. Don’t pick “wedge issues” that might enjoy 52 or 53 percent support; find ones where at least 60 percent of the public supports the conservative principles in the bill at issue, or ones that promote our principles while putting Obama in awkward spots. Choose our fights. Find issues where conservatism and populism are one and the same, and do those first and most prominently.
Somewhat along the same populist lines, but more in the realm of “small ball,” comes an idea (one I did not have a chance to raise with Scalise) that addresses the longest-standing concern of conservatives who are dedicated to keeping government limited.
“The purpose of the Republican Study Committee is to advance conservative principles into law,” one-year House member Bradley Byrne told me a few days before the election. “I can’t think of an issue that unites conservatives more than cutting spending.”
So here’s the idea: Have the RSC, along with ratings groups such as the American Conservative Union, Heritage Action, the National Federation of Small Business, and others, focus on and score cost-saving amendments offered to Appropriations committee bills. From time immemorial, it seems, Republican Appropriations members have allied with Democrats to beat back almost every House-floor attempt to strip individual items (or forbid money to be spent for certain types of projects) from bills passed by the committee. House leadership typically sides with the appropriators on these votes. This stacking of the deck against fiscal conservatives is outrageous.
If, however, outside groups start scoring the votes, conservatives might have a better chance of finding success. This will be especially true if the RSC, 180-strong, makes the appropriations amendments a cause célèbre. With so many House seats now effectively gerrymandered in ways that make primary challenges more threatening to many Republican members than general-election challenges, these vote scores might make a big difference. This will be especially true if those who offer their amendments choose their first targets wisely by selecting easily lampoonable projects (e.g. a rainforest museum in a Farm Belt state) or projects that can attract public antipathy (as with the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere”).
Individually, each amendment might amount to small change in comparison with a $3.5 trillion budget. Yet, as retiring U.S. senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma has demonstrated year after year, the collective waste and inanities in discretionary budgets alone amount to tens of billions of dollars annually. As the old saying goes, pretty soon we’re talking real money — and annual appropriations are the easiest place to start.
“We would be using the voting numbers of the Study Committee for something that unifies conservatives,” Byrne said in approving of the idea.
In taking up this cause, the Study Committee would need to make one change in the usual practice of such amendments. One argument advanced by defenders of the status quo is that barring individual items from appropriations bills doesn’t actually save taxpayers money, because it merely allows the agencies affected to have that same money, but with more discretion on how to use it. The solution is simple: Every House floor amendment stripping a particular item or program from an appropriations bill should specify that the overall budget authority in the overall bill will be reduced by a concomitant amount.
Appropriations budget authority should be seen not as a mandate, and certainly not as a floor, but as a ceiling. If the RSC makes this a priority, and does it with political canniness, the savings project could be an achievable and tangible initiative through which they can show some real results to the American public.
If on some big issues the Republican Congress carefully puts Obama on the spot, while on a host of small spending items the House conservatives put appropriators on the spot, then the recent elections might indeed prove to have started the way toward a reasonable relimitation of government.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor at National Review. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer.