The Minority Maker
The clever GOP strategy for defeat in November.
Thursday, April 13, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT
If Republicans lose control of Congress in November, they might want to look back at last Thursday as the day it was lost. That's when the big spenders among House Republicans blew up a deal between the leadership and rank-in-file to impose some modest spending discipline.
Unlike the collapse of the immigration bill, this fiasco can't be blamed on Senate Democrats. This one is all about Republicans and their refusal to give up their power to spend money at will and pass out "earmarks" like a bartender offering drinks on the house. The chief culprits are the House Appropriators, led by Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis of California and his 13 subcommittee chairmen known as "cardinals." If Republicans lose the House--and they are well on their way--Mr. Lewis deserves the moniker of the minority maker.
For weeks, the Republican Study Committee, a group of fiscally conservative Members, had been negotiating a spending outline with the House leadership. But when they finally struck a deal last week, Mr. Lewis refused to go along and threatened to defeat the budget on the House floor if Speaker Denny Hastert brought it up. With Democrats opposing the budget as a matter of party unity, GOP leaders gave up and left town for Easter recess without a vote on their budget blueprint for 2007.
Political hardball isn't new to Congress, but what's especially notable here is the utter cluelessness by Mr. Lewis and his friends about how much trouble they're in and how to get out of it. The rank-and-file Members who haven't yet gone native in Washington realize that their biggest problem is the disappointment of Republican voters at Congress's free-spending ways. If those voters stay home in November, Mr. Lewis will soon be known as Mr. Ranking Member.
Then again, he's been there before and doesn't seem to mind. Mr. Lewis, who is now in his 14th term, was one of those Republicans who were utterly comfortable in the minority before the Gingrich Revolution in 1994. As chairman of the GOP Conference, Mr. Lewis was the No. 4 Republican in the House before Dick Armey challenged him for the post in 1992 and won--in part because Mr. Lewis was a lot less than revolutionary.
Since that defeat, he's hunkered down as one of the GOP's spenders-in-chief, presiding over multiplying earmarks and chopping to bits the party's reputation as fiscal conservatives. When President Bush recently asked Congress to pass a modified line-item veto, among the first to complain was Mr. Lewis. The spending baron told the Rules Committee last month that the line-item veto "could be a very serious error" that threatens the separation of powers. "We are the legislative branch of government."
Translation: Mr. Lewis is opposed to any budget reform that would give the President more leverage to limit his ability to spend tax dollars like there's no tomorrow. On the item veto, this puts him to the fiscal left of John Kerry, Al Gore, and, well, it's hard to get any further left than that.
The reforms that Mr. Lewis objected to can only be called modest in any case. In return for supporting President Bush's $873 billion discretionary spending limit for Fiscal 2007, the conservatives had sought a few budget "process" reforms. Kevin Brady of Texas wanted a floor vote to establish a commission to sunset federal agencies that have outlived their usefulness. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin asked for a floor vote on the line-item veto--just a vote. Mr. Lewis and his band of spenders would still have the chance to try and defeat it on the House floor.
Jeff Flake of Arizona wanted each spending "earmark" to be identified along with the Member who requested it, so perhaps lawmakers might be shamed into using tax dollars more responsibly. He assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that a legislative body that has allowed these pork projects to quadruple in the past five years is still capable of being embarrassed.
Another important reform would have addressed the "supplemental" spending shell game on Capitol Hill, whereby initial spending requests that fall within the limits of a budget blueprint are inevitably augmented by so-called "emergency" spending. And since this "emergency" spending falls outside the budget framework, the sky's the limit. The proposed reform would have set criteria for what constitutes an emergency, established a rainy day fund for when one occurs, and required a House Budget Committee vote to increase spending beyond the amount in the reserve.
All of this is a far cry from a wholesale and much-needed rewrite of the Democratic budget act of 1974, which Republicans once promised to redo if they ever won the House. That passion has faded as the GOP settled into a cushy incumbent status quo. But facing a sudden revolt among their own younger Members this year, the House leadership finally agreed to the small reforms. The problem now is that Mr. Hastert, new Majority Leader John Boehner and Majority Whip Roy Blunt can't seem to exert any leadership over Mr. Lewis. Maybe they're practicing for taking orders from Speaker Nancy Pelosi next year.
A category five political storm is building in GOP precincts around the country, and it is going to blow Republicans right out of the majority in November if they don't soon give their supporters some reason to re-elect them. So far this year they've passed limits on free speech that liberals love, but they haven't been able to extend the wildly successful 2003 tax cuts by even a mere two years. And now they won't even allow a vote on budget reforms that their own President and a majority of their own Members support.
At the current pace, a Democratic majority in Congress would be preferable, if only for reasons of truth in advertising.