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Boehner has mixed House rules record

Speaker makes no promises this time

- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2013

House Speaker John A. Boehner's lofty pledges to break with precedent and run Congress in a more inclusive, transparent manner ended up a mixed bag over the past two years, as he fulfilled many of his vows, but had others fall to political pressure or circumstances.

The Ohio Republican oversaw the end of spending earmarks, but occasionally fell short of his pledge to give lawmakers the promised three days to read bills before they were scheduled to vote on them.

His chief vow, though, was to open the legislative process to amendments. He wanted to reverse a trend under the previous Democratic majority that offered limited opportunities for individual lawmakers to propose their own measures on the House floor.

On that, Mr. Boehner had some striking successes, including the first major bill of the 112th Congress, House Resolution 1, which funded the government.

"H.R. 1 was really quite remarkable," said Sarah A. Binder, a specialist on Congress and legislative politics at the Brookings Institution. "They did let the process open up. It's rare that parties have that leisure, and it's rare they want to give up that kind of control."

Ms. Binder, however, also described that first piece of legislation as an "aberration" and that other measures of the 112th Congress — such as the deal in the summer of 2011 to raise the federal debt ceiling — did not receive the kind of freewheeling debate of decades ago.

"The Republican majority did not pull us back to that period," she said.

Mr. Boehner, who was re-elected as speaker on Thursday, called on members to devote themselves to service for the sake of the public. He avoided grand pledges about how he would run the chamber for the next two years.

His first address after taking the gavel two years ago focused heavily on the kinds of parliamentary changes that he said were necessary to free the chamber.

"Legislators and the public will have three days to read a bill before it comes to a vote," he vowed. "Legislation will be more focused, properly scrutinized and constitutionally sound. Committees, once bloated, will be smaller with a renewed mission, including oversight. Old rules that have made it easy to increase spending will be replaced by new rules that make it easier to cut spending. And we will start by cutting Congress' own budget."

The speaker lived up to many of those goals. The chamber's rules do make it easier to cut spending, and every bill introduced in the House now must include a statement pointing to the specific constitutional authority that backs it up — though many lawmakers still don't take the requirement seriously.

The three-day rule has fallen victim to circumstance. On Friday, the House leadership will push through a $9 billion package of aid for victims of Superstorm Sandy on the second day of the 113th Congress. Also, the final text of the "fiscal cliff" deal that Mr. Boehner pushed through the House on Tuesday was written less than 24 hours earlier.

The 2011 deal to raise the debt ceiling also was made available to lawmakers less than a day before it was put to a vote.

Staffers said the three-day pledge didn't apply to back-and-forth amendments between the House and Senate.

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland wasn't buying it.

"After this deal was crafted behind closed doors with only a few members of leadership at the table, we were given less than 12 hours to read and review this extremely important legislation," the Georgia Republican said. "More time is needed to make an informed decision about legislation of this size and scope."

Minority Democrats also challenge whether Mr. Boehner has lived up to his inclusiveness pledge.

"While an open-amendment process has been allowed in some cases, much more often the Republican members of the committee have chosen to block all amendments," the four Democrats on the House Rules Committee said in a report looking at the first six months of Mr. Boehner's rule.

Mr. Boehner's pledge to eliminate targeted "earmarks" from spending bills, however, was kept, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a spending-watchdog group.

"By and large, the moratorium held. They really didn't do earmarks," Mr. Ellis said, adding that he preferred a competitive, merit-based earmark system as the next phase of reform rather than an outright ban. "Until you do that, there's always a risk they're going to come back."

Such benefits and pork-barrel spending often crammed into legislation make up an insignificant amount of the overall federal budget, but the crackdown sent a symbolic message that the House would take spending seriously, no matter how small the amount.

On Thursday, members didn't feel quite the same. When Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rogers, from Washington state, mentioned that Mr. Boehner ended earmarks in her introductory floor speech, there was a smattering of laughter and throat-clearing in the chamber from both sides of the aisle.

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