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Last updateMon, 27 Nov 2017 12am

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Will new rules help Congress cut spending?

Following the 2010 election there are now more Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives than at any other time since the election of 1946.   The new majority is flush with victory, they have an agenda, and as one Congressman put it, “we have the gavel and we intend to use it.”

The House of Representatives has only met for a few days, so just how well they’re going to do at reining in spending and delivering on their promise to immediately cut $100
billion from the Federal budget is an open question.

There are a lot of reasons why the Republicans did so well in the last election.  There was certainly a “send a message” vote aimed at Washington and especially President Obama.  There was also the backlash over healthcare.  Many voters cited this as the reason for voting for the GOP.  And there was angst over the economy.  However, one concern that seemed to dominate voters who supported the Republican wave was the deficit.  With over a third of our spending now funded by debt they felt something had to change.  That’s why the House, trying to break some old habits of this historically “buy now, pay later body,” is trying to change the underlying mindset of the way the Congress handles money.

The House of Representatives has only met for a few days, so just how well they’re going to do at reining in spending and delivering on their promise to immediately cut $100 billion from the Federal budget is an open question.  But in drafting some of the new rules for the House they seem to have shown a desire to change the way they do business.
The House, unlike the Senate, is not a continuous body.  The Senate, because it reelects only a third of their membership each election cycle, is on-going, and they’re able to use the rules in effect in the last Congress when they reconvene in the next.  However, the House, because everyone is freshly elected or reelected every two years has to enact a brand new set of rules for conducting business.  Sometimes this is just a routine matter, but this year, the House decided it needed an entirely new approach.  This is particularly true when it comes to money.
Under previous Congresses there was a requirement that any new spending had to identify a source of revenue to fund it.   However, this rarely worked the way it was supposed to.  Often, and Republican led Congresses were some of the worst offenders, this rule was easily waived.  What’s more the revenue often didn’t materialize.  This time they’re taking a different approach.  Instead of identifying new revenues, any new “direct spending” bill has to specify, in the bill, what spending is going to be cut.  The new rules make it far more difficult to waive this provision.  The hope is that it will have a dampening effect on the number of new spending bills.
One of the most egregious bits of parliamentary procedure that the new rules do away with is called the “Gephardt Rule.”  This was an exceedingly clever legislative protocol which tied any increase in the nation’s debt ceiling to a vote on the annual budget.  In other words a vote on the budget was a vote on increasing the debt ceiling.  They were indistinguishable.  It was a clever way for members to dodge accountability for the ever growing size of the national debt.  It should, however, be noted, that this rule, originally dreamed up by the former Democratic Minority Leader, Dick Gephardt, has been enthusiastically employed by both parties.  Now, thank goodness, a vote for increasing the size of the national debt is just that, a vote to increase the debt, and isn’t hidden inside another bill.
The rules also include a unique new feature and that’s some new rules on accountability.   It used to be that an entire piece of legislation, crafted, sometimes in the nighttime hours, could be presented to the Congress and voted on at the same time.   A lot of legislation, that even most of the members’ staffs hadn’t fully digested, has gotten approved this way.  Now, any new bill has to be posted on the House Website at least three days before it’s voted on. Some have argued, rightly, that this could slow down the legislative process.  It might. There might even be times, in true emergencies, when the rule will have to be waived, but otherwise, if it’s observed, it has the potential of improving the level of Congressional transparency.
Each of these rules changes, of course, depend on just how serious the Congress and its leadership are about sticking to them. Waiving the rules, coming up with legislative maneuvers to get around them, is surprisingly easy. No matter how difficult the rules may seem to make it.  However, the change in philosophy this signals is encouraging, but it also raises some high expectations for a Republican led Congress that was elected, at least in the eyes of many of their supporters, to cut government spending.
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