The New Republican Rules

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After the ceremonies and standing ovations died down, the new Republican House majority did get around to some crucial business today. By a straight party-line vote, the House approved a new rules package for the 112th Congress, 240-191.

Republicans say passing the new package–a right granted by the Constitution–will foster openness and transparency and help curtail wasteful spending. There are nods to the Tea Party’s “Contract From America,” including the provision that each bill must cite its constitutional authority and others that specify minimum time requirements that the text of a bill or amendment must be available before being acted upon. Whereas in the past, the federal debt ceiling would rise automatically when a budget resolution to borrow more money was adopted, now such a measure will force a vote–one that’s likely to spark internal strife when Tea Party deficit hawks balk.

Perhaps most importantly, the budget rules include a major shift in strategy, from a policy known as “Pay as You Go” — a system that tries to control the budget by requiring tax cuts or spending increases to be offset, and which was in place during the Clinton Administration surplus — to a “Cut as You Go” model, which requires spending to be offset but spares tax cuts from that requirement. The bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has a full run-down and analysis, citing both positive budget-related provisions (the focus on curbing long- and short-term spending) and the ones with the potential to do serious damage.

Exempting tax cuts, as the report notes, will make it much harder to balance the budget; cutting spending alone does little good if there’s a corresponding loss in revenue. The rules also vest an enormous amount of power in Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin deficit hawk who will helm the Budget Committee, enabling Ryan to set spending limits essentially by fiat. As Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute writes:

[There is a] provision in the rules to deputize the chairman of the House Budget Committee to unilaterally create spending and revenue limits and caps by committee and enact them simply by publishing them in the Congressional Record.

This is breathtaking: It demolishes the Congressional budget process in one fell swoop, and it takes away the accountability, openness and deliberation that a regular budget process provides. This is the opposite of accountability; Members, by voting in lockstep to enact a package of rules, will implicitly vote for a budget they have never seen. It will be binding in the House.

When individual appropriations come up, any proposal that changes the edicts of Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) by restoring cuts in spending will be ruled out of order. Dramatic and Draconian budget cuts without votes or debate. That is the new open and deliberative House?

Ryan has indicated he’ll roll back non-security discretionary spending to 2008 levels–which would prompt deep cuts in most other areas, potentially creating friction with Senate Republicans. After promising in the Pledge to America to cull $100 billion in waste in year one, Republicans are now cutting that number in half. Democrats argue that their new rules are rife with hypocrisies, underlining the gap between the GOP’s rhetoric on fiscal discipline and the reality.

“This rules package shows Republicans already going back on their promises of fiscal responsibility and of a transparent, open Congress,” Steny Hoyer, the Democratic whip, said on the floor Wednesday. At a press conference yesterday, Democratic leadership argued the rules would “explode” the deficit; Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Ryan’s foil as the committee’s ranking member, argued that GOP “budget gimmicks” amounted to “Enron-style accounting,” a charge he repeated during today’s floor debate. Exhibit A, he said Tuesday, was their first major piece of legislation, the health-care repeal effort. As I wrote, the GOP dismissed the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimate that the PPACA would slash the deficit by $143 billion through 2019, and the repeal legislation identifies no counterweight to that sum. “That kind of flim-flam,” Van Hollen said, “is the kind of thing the American people came to expect the last time they were in charge.”