To cut spending, Republicans eye changes to House rules

Jonathan Strong Contributor

Poised to take back the House on Nov. 2, top Republican officials are eying changes to procedural rules that govern how legislation is passed in the House with the goal of keeping spending down, a senior GOP aide said.

The potential rule changes include a 72-hour waiting period between the unveiling of legislative language and a House vote on it and allowing rank-and-file members to offer amendments on spending bills.

Proponents argue the changes are needed because current House rules are tilted towards more spending.

“I think that Pelosi and the Democrats have established a system designed to maximize spending and to minimize the chance to offer amendments and to offer alternatives. And so it’s a constant engine of upwards spending,” former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said in an interview with The Daily Caller.

“Structure dictates behavior,” is a regular saying of Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a spokesman noted.

The discussions regarding the rule changes are part of a broader policy proposal to be released in the next two weeks.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, Republican Whip Eric Cantor, chief deputy Whip McCarthy, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions and Paul Ryan, the top Republican on the budget committee, are party to the talks, a second source said.

The specific rule changes under discussion include a range of proposals, many of which key Republicans have advanced in the past.

But with polls showing Republicans as likely to take over the House of Representatives, coupled with increasing public concern over spending and deficit issues, the changes are now much more likely to be enacted.

One of the most prominent and popular proposals is to set a 72-hour waiting period between when legislative language is introduced and when it comes up for a vote on the House floor.

Controversy regarding last-minute negotiations and changes to the Democrat’s stimulus, health care and other proposals have reached a fever pitch such that “read the bill!” is now a rallying cry among many activists and Republican candidates for Congress.

When House Democrats passed cap-and-trade legislation to address global warming, for instance, Boehner took to the House floor, illustrating his anger at the myriad last-minute changes to the bill by reading statutory language page-by-page on the House floor.

In that instance, Democrats, led by Rep. Henry Waxman of California, released a 300-page “managers amendment” at 3:00am the morning of the vote.

Gingrich said the waiting period would allow political pressure to build against spending bills. “I think Boehner is committed to this, one is a requirement of a three day waiting period for people to read the bill. So it’s online. That will guarantee that around the country you’ll have thousands of citizens analyzing bills and bringing pressure to bear.”

The rule may be difficult to accommodate in practice, when difficult votes force last-minute compromises with wary lawmakers. Also, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi vowed procedural reforms that fell to the wayside when Democrats assumed power.

NEXT: Other changes under consideration
Another key change under consideration by Republicans is to keep an “open rule” on all spending bills, which allows rank-and-file members to offer amendments. Under “closed rule,” the amendments permitted to be voted on are determined by party leadership.

For deficit hawks, the argument for open rule on spending bills is that it allows particularly wasteful or unnecessary spending to be targeted by political opponents.

“It’s amazing that for 220 years spending bills came up under open procedure where any member could offer an amendment to cut spending. And the Democrats closed it off because they were getting so much political heat. Because if you isolate out the dumbest things in the bill, it is amazingly easy to deal with them,” Gingrich said.

Under the Pelosi-run House, spending bills have been subject to increasingly strict rules on amendments, under which rank-and-file members have sometimes chafed.

Gingrich also said Republicans are considering requiring further transparency for spending bills, much like federal agencies must report how they spend their money.

“I think there will be a commitment to build on what Dick Armey did – the various reporting mechanisms we built in the mid-1990s. And establish a process to now bring that into the legislative branch. And literally, methodically over the next few years, review every government program to find how to eliminate waste and duplication.”

A fourth proposal under consideration is a change in rules to the budget process such that maintaining current levels of spending is not considered “cutting” spending. The current process establishes a “baseline” that assumes spending increases, such that maintaining spending levels is a “cut” to the baseline.

A fifth proposal, one forwarded by some conservative House members, regards altering the schedule for “suspension votes,” votes intended to be on small, non-controversial bills.

Suspension bills require two-thirds vote for passage. Typically, Members of the House arrive in Washington on Tuesday afternoon for a series of suspension votes at 6:30pm. Many of the votes are largely meaningless, regarding the renaming of post offices and other frivolous matters. But some include new government spending.

One proposal floating among House Republicans is to schedule suspension votes once a month instead of once a week and limit the amount of spending to less than $1 million.

Gingrich said the 72-hour waiting period would cure the problem with suspension bills increasing spending without sufficient oversight by Members.

“If you have an open process and the same three day layover rule, so people can read them, you’re not going to pass very much junk on suspension, because it requires two-thirds vote. So you have to combine the suspension process with the three-day layover process,” Gingrich said.

Two aides close to the deliberations regarding the Republican’s policy proposal said they are not familiar with the suspension calendar proposal.