Congress must fundamentally rethink the way it spends taxpayer money, including getting rid of massive multi-agency spending bills and forcing lawmakers who want to add new government programs to first cut an existing one, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner said Thursday.
Mr. Boehner, who could become House speaker if Republicans win the chamber in November, also said he personally will continue to reject earmarks and challenged colleagues to "end earmarking as we know it" — filling in a major gap in last week's "Pledge to America," the political road map laid out by the House GOP.
The Ohio Republican said that, under the way Congress now operates, "the inertia in Washington is currently to spend and spend and spend." He said those rules should be rewritten so each agency gets a thorough review every year, and the incentives are set up to cut, rather than expand, government.
"Members shouldn't have to vote for big spending increases at the Labor Department in order to fund [the Department of] Health and Human Services. Members shouldn't have to vote for big increases at the Commerce Department just because they support NASA," he said.
Claiming credentials as a reformer within his own party, and saying he has the bruises to prove it, Mr. Boehner said Republicans and Democrats alike have forgotten how to legislate.
"Here's my question: What are we so afraid of? The more we do to avoid risk and protect our members from tough votes, the more ineffective and polarized the institution becomes," he said at a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. "Instead of selling our members short, let's give them a chance to do their jobs. Let's let legislators legislate once again."
Democrats didn't attack Mr. Boehner's message as much as they attacked him for being the messenger.
"John Boehner is the antithesis of someone who should be trusted with reforming Congress or Washington," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse.
The DNC announced a video yesterday recapping Mr. Boehner's ties to the Washington lobbying community, while other Democrats pointed to votes the Republican leader made against bills to create new ethics offices or change campaign finance rules.
As Mr. Boehner's profile has risen, he has been singled out for criticism by President Obama, who traveled to Cleveland just to counter a speech Mr. Boehner had given there earlier.
Mr. Boehner's ascension to speaker if Republicans win the House is not a guarantee. On Thursday, Rep. Michael C. Burgess, Texas Republican, told ABC News "it's premature" for Republicans to lock in an heir apparent.
But Mr. Boehner has made strides in unifying his party, including with last week's Pledge to America. While panned by many conservatives for leaving out some of their priorities, it does offer Republicans a chance to win a governing mandate on a platform of spending cuts and congressional reforms.
On Thursday, Mr. Boehner proposed rewriting the 1974 Budget Act, which governs how Congress spends money and set up the convoluted "reconciliation" process that Democrats used this year to pass part of their health care legislation.
He also said he will push for what he calls "cut-as-you-go" to force lawmakers not to expand government.
"Very simply, under this 'cutgo' rule, if it is your intention to create a new government program, you must also terminate or reduce spending on an existing government program of equal or greater size - in the very same bill," he said.
On earmarks, the targeted spending items inserted by members to direct federal dollars to their states and districts, Mr. Boehner said it will be a "collective decision" by the entire House Republican Conference whether to continue this year's ban on earmarks. But he added that he supports a continuation.
"My colleagues and my constituents know where I stand. I told my constituents in 1990: If you believe it's important to have a representative in Washington who will go there and raid the federal Treasury on your behalf, you should probably vote for someone else," he said.
House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican who is second in the House GOP hierarchy, said he, too, wants to end earmarks.
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