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Reforming the House: Cosmetic or real changes?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 30, 2010 - WASHINGTON - Six years after its namesake left the House to found his own lobbying and consulting firm, the so-called "Gephardt rule" may be coming to an end -- for the second time -- in the new Congress that convenes next week.

That House rule, named for former U.S. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt -- a Democrat from St. Louis and longtime U.S. House majority and minority leader -- had been invoked for years to allow members of Congress to avoid casting a direct vote on raising the nation's debt ceiling. The tactic aimed to head off what many Democrats regarded as "grandstanding" by conservative Republicans who railed against the debt's size, even though refusing to raise the ceiling could have led to fiscal collapse.

But in the 112th Congress that starts on Jan. 5, conservative Republicans -- including many freshmen backed heavily by Tea Party groups who are planning on plenty of grandstanding on the House floor -- will have considerable clout in the leadership team led by Speaker-elect John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Just before Christmas, Boehner and his leadership team unveiled a planned series of House rule changes -- subject to final approval by the chamber's Republicans next week -- that he said, in a statement, were reforms that aimed "to change the way Washington works and addresses the people's priorities: creating jobs and cutting spending."

While some of those changes may have an impact on how the House appropriates funds, others appear to be mainly cosmetic -- placing a veneer of transparency on what is at heart the same system that Tea Partiers and others railed against in the November elections. If nothing else, the changes seem likely to generate more partisan debates in the House.

According to a summary of the proposed House rules, the Republican majority will require new mandatory spending to be offset by cuts in other programs. That practice, known as "CUT/GO," would not allow taxes to be increased to pay for such new spending -- unlike the PAY/GO ("pay as you go") rules of the Congress that just ended. Critics say, however, that CUT/GO doesn't require budget cuts to offset lower revenue from new tax cuts.

The proposed rules also would require House members to vote on the record when the nation's debt ceiling is raised. That would, in effect, repeal the Gephardt rule, technically House Rule XXVII, under which legislation increasing the debt limit was generated automatically when the House set federal spending levels by passing a conference report on the annual budget resolution.

Gephardt's rule was adopted in the early 1990s and was included in the toolboxes of the Republican-controlled House between 1995 and 2001 -- when it was revoked by Republican leaders for two years -- and then brought back by Republicans between 2003 and 2007, and kept by Democratic leaders since then.

Other changes planned by Boehner's team are requiring that members' attendance be kept at committee hearings and "markup sessions" (when bills are considered and amended); and continuing to bar former House members from lobbying in the House gym.

The full text of the package of new rules -- which Republicans contend will help address the public's attitude toward Congress as unable to control its spending and too prone to smoke-filled rooms -- is still subject to change when the new Congress' Republicans meet in a caucus on Jan. 4.

Akin: 'system Doesn't Work'

When it comes to spending cuts, "all bets are off in the new Congress," said U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Town and Country. With the influx of more than 80 new House members -- many of them fiscal conservatives with Tea Party support -- fiscal issues are expected to rise to the top. During the Congress that just ended, the House conservative caucus asked Akin to help suggest ways to reform the budget and appropriations process.

"The system doesn't work," Akin told the Beacon in an interview, citing the struggles among the Budget Committee, the Appropriations Committee and the other committees that authorize programs. Part of the problem, he said, relates to "the fiefdoms that have grown" in powerful House committees.

Akin said some of the worst abuses take place in conference committees, in which House members and senators work out differences between House- and Senate-passed versions of legislation. "If you have a House and a Senate committee coming together for a conference, in the state of Missouri if a senator put 100 bucks in for hot dogs and I as a House member put in 50 bucks, the conference cannot come out with 101 or 49 bucks.

"Here in Washington, if you've got 100 in for hot dogs and I've got 50 in for hot dogs, the [conference] committee can come out with 700 bucks for caviar."

Akin thinks part of the problem is the arrogance of the committee chiefs who do the horse-trading. "You have important chairmen who walk into a conference with amendments in their pockets, which were never heard in committee, never approved by anybody -- to build a rain forest in Iowa or whatever it is. They stick it right into the conference bill and, within a day or two, people are voting on this stuff."

"I believe in the redesign of the system" of budgets and appropriating money in the House, said Akin, who will serve on the Budget Committee in the new Congress. "We need to define a legitimate amendment versus an earmark which we oppose."

Nibbling on the Edges?

To be sure, there will be changes in House committee procedures under the Boehner team's proposed rules, but most of those appear to nibble around the edges of reform.

For example, committee chairs would be required to circulate the full text of bills at least 24 hours before they are considered and also post the text of all amendments and votes on those amendments online. Committees also would be forced to give three days' notice before the panel "markup" of bills and also publish co-called "truth in testimony" statements to clarify any potential conflicts of interests of witnesses at hearings.

And the names of at least three House committees are to be modified to please their new Republican chairs. In what may be the most controversial move, conservatives want to strike the word "labor" from the Education and Labor Committee, so it becomes the Education and Workforce Committee.

Such reforms may send a message to voters, but they will hardly transform the culture in Congress, observers say. Michael Franc, a former Capitol Hill staffer who is now vice president for government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, said that changing the rules and traditions in Congress is so difficult because of the entrenched nature of the process, around which entire special-interest and other industries have grown in the "K Street culture" in the nation's capital.

"The rules are structured in a way that a small number of legislators in a back room tend to make all the important decisions," Franc told the Beacon.

Despite decades of reform attempts, the backroom dealing remains -- although the negotiating rooms and hideaways are far less smoke-filled than they used to be -- and the "Gucci Gulch" hallways outside the finance and appropriations committees are still crowded with lobbyists.

The "good old boy" networks remain, although far more rebels and some "good old girls" have invaded the backrooms -- led by outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her Democratic "whips," who can arm-twist with the best of them.

Her Republican successor, Boehner, started out as a reformer in the 1994 Republican invasion that took control of the House, but has emerged in recent years as a well-tanned insider with lots of lobbyist friends on grassy golf courses and in the corridors of K Street influence-peddling firms.

"What makes the power of the status quo so overwhelming is that the current way of doing things in Congress has acquired institutional support from a wide range of forces -- on the right and on the left," said Franc. Depending on whom you ask, those forces include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, trade associations for most sectors of the economy, labor unions, lobbyists and innumerable special-interest organizations.

"They all have grown up around the way things are done -- the way committees are structured, the way [campaign] money flows. They have relationships built around all of those things," Franc said. "There's a sense of frustration -- panic, really -- that arises when there are changes to the way chairmen are selected or the way committee jurisdictions are designed. That may change the way that legislation does or doesn't move in the House or the Senate.

"All those things could potentially pose enormous threats to the business-as-usual climate that is supported because that's how entire interests have arranged their way of doing business. It's like the DNA of Congress, in some ways. If you alter that DNA, you don't quite know what's going to happen."

Fiscal Restraint in the New Congress?

Whatever happens in the 112th Congress, House Republicans are expected to make major efforts to slash federal spending. However, those attempts may well hit brick walls in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

And President Barack Obama -- who showed recently with the package that combined an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts with a parallel extension of federal unemployment benefits that he is willing to compromise with Republican congressional leaders -- retains the power of the veto.

One change apparently set in concrete, at least in the House, is a ban on earmarks, or funding for specific projects inserted into appropriations bills by members of Congress. House Republicans had started that ban a year ago and plan to continue it. Said the incoming House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va.: "There will be no earmarks in the 112th Congress. Period."

The impact of other rule changes may be limited. For example, even if the Gephardt rule is discarded, the federal debt ceiling will have to be raised again in 2011 to avoid a fiscal crisis.

Even so, the Committee on a Responsible Federal Budget, a fiscally conservative interest group, said in a statement that "eliminating the Gephardt rule shortcut and forcing an on-the-record vote on increasing the debt limit will compel members of the House to be accountable for what will be a very contentious vote when the time comes next year. Hopefully, this will motivate lawmakers to agree on a fiscal plan in advance of that point to make the vote more palatable."

The committee was less optimistic about the other budget change planned by Boehner, saying his CUT-GO rule "is really a weakening of [the current] Pay-go. Taxes should absolutely not be left out of the equation, an omission that encourages the use of tax expenditures and the proliferation of back-door spending through manipulation of the tax code."

Instead of small changes, the Responsible Federal Budget group said that, "at the top of the list must be reforming the dysfunctional budget and appropriations process. The drama over stopgap funding measures and the complete lack of a budget or any spending bills this year underscores the need for fundamental change."

Urging "a complete reform of the system," the group recommended that legislators consider budget-related suggestions made by a recent Peterson-Pew Commission report, Getting Back in the Black.

So far, however, Boehner seems to be more interested in reducing House administration expenditures than in making major changes to the system. "I'm going to cut my budget, my leadership budget 5 percent. I'm going to cut all the leadership budgets by 5 percent. I'm going to cut every committee's budget by 5 percent," Boehner told Lesley Stahl of CBS News on "60 Minutes" this month.

"And every [U.S. House] member is going to see a 5 percent reduction in their allowance. All together that's $25 million-$30 million and it likely would be one of the first votes we cast."

Akin is among the House Republicans who would like to see more fundamental reforms eventually -- especially in the traditional division of authorizing committees setting priorities and appropriations committees determining the funding levels.

Contending that "the system doesn't work," Akin said that "the original concept was a check-and-balance type of idea, but the checks and balances have totally broken down. ... The authorizing committees hold endless hearings and nothing comes of it, and a few appropriators make the call as to what we're really going to spend money on."

Added Akin: "When I first came here, they talked about authorization and appropriations. It didn't seem to make sense, but I thought I'd figure it out someday. Well, 10 years later, it still doesn't make any sense."