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This AEI address on congressional reform given by House Republican Leader John Boehner is part of a collection of five speeches assembled by Boehner in a document he calls “Pillars of a New Majority.”
Good afternoon. Thank you, Chris, for the warm welcome.
I’d like to begin by telling you a story. Some years ago back in Ohio, while I was working my way through night school at Xavier University, I started a small business. Sadly, about six months after we got up and running, my partner in the venture died suddenly. And we had one customer at the time. So there I was, with two years left at Xavier, and I was trying to hold this business together–the little bit that was still there. And, let me tell you, I fought for it with everything I had.
Looking back on it now, what strikes me is that I never thought about walking away. This was something I invested my name and my money in. And I had an obligation to that paying customer, as well as my partner who had also put his time and energy into the business.
Today, I feel the same sense of obligation and determination when I look at what’s happened to our government.
Because listen, I’ve been here nearly twenty years, so I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. And lately, there’s been plenty of ugly. Americans have every right to be fed up–they do. “But what I won’t accept–what I refuse to accept–is that we can simply walk away and let our government continue to drift–this government our forbears sacrificed everything to build.
The mission of the United States Congress is to serve the American people–and today, due in part to institutional barriers that have been in place for decades, that mission goes unfulfilled.
These wounds have been self-inflicted by both parties, and if we do not fix them, it’s possible no one will. In the Constitution, the House of Representatives is the first institution of the first branch of government–the body closest to the people. That is an awesome responsibility. We should take pride in it, and be humbled by it. The House, more than any other part of our government, is the most direct voice of the people–and therefore should be afforded the most care in protecting its ability to reflect the people’s will.
So today I’d like to talk to you about why this institution is broken and how we make it function again. Because until it does, ladies and gentlemen, we don’t stand a chance of addressing our deepest and most pressing problems.
Collapse of the 111th Congress
Just look at how the 111th Congress is not so much concluding as it is collapsing. Instead of tallying up a final flurry of legislative output, observers and constituents are asking, ‘what went wrong?’
“The answers would come easy to the people in this room, but the hard truth for families and small businesses is that their problems continue to go unaddressed.
This week, we had–in my view–an obligation to bring both parties together and stop massive tax increases scheduled to take effect on January 1st –increases we have seen coming for two years now. And, even with the existence of a clear bipartisan majority and the support of the American people, we could not get a simple up-or-down vote.
It’s a sad, but not altogether surprising, finale to this Congress, and the latest in a long string of congressional sessions that have frayed the fragile bonds of trust between the American people and their legislature.
The House finds itself in a state of emergency. The institution does not function, does not deliberate, and seems incapable of acting on the will of the people. From the floor to the committee level, the integrity of the House has been compromised. The battle of ideas–the very lifeblood of the House–is virtually nonexistent.
Leaders overreach because the rules allow them to. Legislators duck their responsibilities because the rules help them to. And when the rules don’t suit the majority’s purposes, they are just ignored.
There’s no accountability, and there are no consequences. Whether we here in Washington believe this or not, the people clearly do. Think about how our constant flouting of the rules sits with a small business owner who has to spend his or her day complying with all the mandates and regulations our government sends down.
The dysfunction in Congress is not new; both parties bear the blame for it. But the dysfunction has now reached a tipping point–a point at which none of us can credibly deny that it is having a negative impact on the people we serve. Consider:
This is the first time since enactment of the Budget Act in 1974 that the House has not passed a budget resolution.
This Congress is the first in our history that has not allowed one bill to be considered under an open amendment process–not one. The current freshman class has served an entire term in Congress without ever having operated under an open rule.
And use of ‘martial law’–which gives the majority the power to bring up any bill at any time and strips the minority of its few rights–has nearly doubled.
The three pillars of any democracy are the rule of law, transparency, and a functioning civil society. Over decades, all three of these pillars have been chipped away in the people’s House.
The work of making our institution function again cannot be reduced to one reform or toolkit of reforms. It will require a sustained effort that rests on the three pillars and firmly adheres to the job description laid out in Article I of the Constitution.
Rule of Law
First, the rule of law. We always hear members of Congress talking about swearing an oath to represent their constituents when in reality the only oath we take is to the Constitution. We pledge “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” No more, no less.
But we have strayed far afield from our job description. Members go out and promise their constituents the moon, and to try and fulfill those commitments, they agree to conform to a system that emphasizes seniority and party loyalty. The ropes they are shown lead to passing more bills, micromanaging more bureaucracies, and raiding the federal treasury.
That is why, in the Pledge to America, the governing agenda my colleagues and I issued last week, we state that every bill that comes to the floor of the House should contain a clear citation of constitutional authority. If we cannot do this much–we should put down the pen and stop right there.
Congress has been most maligned over the past generation for its fiscal recklessness, and rightly so. Mindful of the dangers of ‘taxation without representation,’ the Framers handed the power to tax and spend to the legislative branch exclusively. It’s right there in Article I, Section 9.
But having the right to do something doesn’t necessarily make it the right thing to do. Current congressional rules are rigged to make it easy to increase spending and next-to-impossible to cut spending. Much of the law that governs the process–the Budget Act of 1974–is tied to rules instead of statutes. Consequently, we routinely waive the Budget Act’s requirements to serve our purposes. Can’t write a budget? Just waive the rule and move on. No harm, no foul. The “pay as you go” rule has been repeatedly ignored to justify billions of dollars in new spending and tax and fee increases. So we ought to start at square one and give serious consideration to re-visiting, and perhaps re-writing, the 1974 Budget Act.
While the culture of spending stems largely from a lack of political will in both parties to say ‘no,’ it is also the consequence of what I believe to be a structural problem. As Kevin McCarthy often says, structure dictates behavior. Aided by a structure that facilitates spending increases and discourages spending cuts, the inertia in Washington is currently to spend–and spend–and spend. Most spending bills come to the floor prepackaged in a manner that makes it as easy as possible to advance government spending and programs, and as difficult as possible to make cuts.
Again, this is not a new problem. But if we’re serious about confronting the challenges that lie ahead for our nation, it’s totally inadequate.
I propose today a different approach. Let’s do away with the concept of “comprehensive” spending bills. Let’s break them up, to encourage scrutiny, and make spending cuts easier. Rather than pairing agencies and departments together, let them come to the House floor individually, to be judged on their own merit. Members shouldn’t have to vote for big spending increases at the Labor Department in order to fund Health and Human Services. Members shouldn’t have to vote for big increases at the Commerce Department just because they support NASA. Each Department and agency should justify itself each year to the full House and Senate, and be judged on its own.
For decades, the word “comprehensive” has been used as a positive adjective in Washington. I would respectfully submit that those days are behind us. The American people are not well-served by “comprehensive.” In an era of trillion-dollar deficits, we need a tighter focus; one that places an emphasis on getting it right, and less emphasis on getting it done quickly.
Don’t assume I’m singling out the appropriators; I’m not. Over decades, in my view, authorizing committees in the House and Senate have also abdicated their responsibility, often authorizing billions of dollars knowing full well they will never actually be appropriated. Interest groups then lobby Congress to “fully fund” the program, systematically creating pressure on the legislature to drive up spending. This has to stop. Authorizing Committees should be held to the same standard as the appropriations committee: authorize what we can afford, and hold agencies to account for results.
We should also consider developing a “cut as you go” rule that would apply to any member proposing the creation of new government programs or benefits. 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.
Just this week, the majority leadership brought 85 different suspension bills to the floor on a single day–many of them creating new government programs, some of which had been subject to little if any scrutiny or debate. If we’d had a “CutGO” rule in place this week, roughly half of these 85 bills would never have made it to the floor.
CutGO was conceived by my friend and colleague Roy Blunt. And as he put it, ‘let’s turn the activists for big government on each other, instead of letting them gang up on the taxpayer.’ Through this public discussion, we might end up finding out that neither program has a whole lot of merit in the first place. It may sound simplistic, but sometimes that’s the best place to start.
Of course, no amount of spending control can substitute for the critical role of oversight. We should direct every committee to make its oversight responsibilities a top priority, and to make no apologies for it. Both parties should work together to ensure each program is meeting congressional intent and serving the national interest. Republicans should not start from the assumption that all government is bad; nor should Democrats start from the assumption that all government is good. Oversight should be conducted by uniform standards:
What’s the purpose of this program?
What’s its’ responsibility?
Is this the best use of taxpayers’ time and money?
Of course, if we’re truly serious about being responsible again on spending, we need to do something about earmarks.
As we know too well, earmarks are the often-questionable spending projects that are slipped into bills with little scrutiny. They run the gamut from bridges to nowhere and “monuments to me” to sewer projects and art exhibits. They ride on authorizing bills, appropriations bills, and tax bills. An entire lobbying industry has been created around them. And they’ve become a symbol of a spending process that has broken faith with the American people.
House Republicans voted to stop the process this year–on our own, without cooperation from Democrats–so that we could begin reforming how Washington spends taxpayers’ money.
Like the decision to adopt the moratorium in the first place, the future of the moratorium will be a collective decision, made by our members. But on the question of earmarking, 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 who will go to Washington and raid the federal Treasury on your behalf, you should probably vote for someone else. I’ve had a personal ‘no earmarks’ policy since I began serving in Congress, and I always will. I believe it is our obligation to end earmarking as we know it and bring fundamental change to the manner in which Washington spends taxpayers’ money, and I will continue to be an advocate for reforms to ensure that happens.
Functioning Civil Society
One of the reasons why we do not have a functioning civil society in the House is that our efforts are geared towards catering to the individual member instead of focusing on our collective responsibility to govern. The rules are too often manipulated to shut down debate and protect individual members from tough votes.
In recent years–and not just under the current majority–the minority has been forced to use the motion to recommit, often in ways that are painful for the majority, to ensure the minority’s voice is heard. And in turn, the majority has responded by conjuring up new ways to shut the minority out even further. It’s a cycle of gridlock.
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. The House was designed to reflect our natural contentiousness as a people. That’s the genius of our system.
So instead of clamping down even further, it’s my view that we should open things up and let the battle of ideas help break down the scar tissue between the two parties. Yes, we will still have disagreements. But let’s have them out in the open. Yes, we will still try to outmaneuver each other. But let’s make it a fair fight. Instead of selling our Members short, let’s give them a chance to do their jobs. Let’s let legislators legislate again.
Again, structure dictates behavior. More debate and more amendments will mean more intense scrutiny, and ultimately, better legislation.
Just as we’ve shielded members from tough votes, we’ve also enabled them to write bad bills. With all the challenges facing our nation, it is absurd that Congress spends so much time on naming post offices, congratulating sports teams, and celebrating the birthdays of historical figures.
Now, I know the drill: members get good press opportunities back home and leaders get cover while stalling on the people’s priorities. But often these resolutions are poorly drafted, or duplicative of previously considered bills. And under both parties they’ve received little or no oversight. It’s my view that we should consider taking all these commemorative moments and special honors, and handle them during special orders and one-minute speeches. It’s time to focus on doing what we were sent here to do.
The ultimate measure of whether we have a functioning house is not bipartisanship. Our focus shouldn’t be on working across party lines for its own sake. The true test is whether our ideas, policies, and values are able to stand the test of a fair debate and a fair vote. And sadly, that’s something we have not seen in the House for some time.
Of course, it’s hard to guarantee a fair debate when the majority has the ability to change bills in the dark of night and literally drop them into the laps of the minority just hours before debate is set to start. Without transparency, lawmakers cannot hold each other accountable, and the American people cannot hold us to account.
That’s why in the Pledge to America we say that the text of all bills should be published online for at least three days before coming up for a vote. No exceptions. No excuses.
But this lack of transparency speaks to a larger problem where the Speaker’s office has the capacity to unilaterally draft a bill and send it straight through to the Rules Committee.
Woodrow Wilson once said that ‘Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, while Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work.’ If President Wilson went from committee room to committee room today, he might take that statement back. Because the truth is, much of the work of committees has been co-opted by the leadership. In too many instances, we no longer have legislators; we just have voters.
In my view, if we want to make legislators legislate again, then we need to empower them at the committee level. If Members were more engaged in their committee work, they would be more invested in the final products that come to the floor.
From 2001 to 2006, I had the privilege to serve as chairman of the Education & Workforce committee. The ranking member at the time was George Miller of California. Now, no one would confuse me and George Miller for ideological soulmates. But in just a few years, we were able to work together to transform our committee from a “backwater” panel that nobody wanted to be on to an active panel at the center of some of the biggest issues of the day. By focusing on our work, letting our members be legislators, and setting high standards, we were able to elevate the committee to its proper role. There’s no reason every single committee in the House can’t achieve the same thing.
Much of this is up to committee chairmen and ranking members themselves. If every chairman and ranking member started with the mindset that their committee’s bill could be the one that comes to the floor, better legislation would result. Chairmen shouldn’t be content to churn out flawed bills and then rely on their leadership to bail them out. Chairmen should operate with the assumption that their bills are going to be on the floor, and assume that once their bills are on the floor, they’ll be subject to an open rule. If all committee chairmen and ranking members had this mentality, the result would be better legislation, and better legislators.
At Education and Workforce, we operated with a set of transparency rules that encouraged deliberation and limited problems:
First, we gave at least three days notice on all bills. Actually, we normally went above and beyond this standard, giving about a week’s notice on each bill, but three days was the rule. That gave Members plenty of time to gain an appropriate depth of knowledge and scrub each bill for potential landmines.
We also required that all votes be posted online within 48 hours of being cast. Believe it or not, committees are not currently required to post these records at all, let alone within a certain time frame. If we posted these records online, more Members would be inclined to do their jobs, attend committee proceedings, and weigh in on a bill before it goes to the floor.
And third, any amendments had to be posted online within 24 hours after being adopted. We have seen in the past instances where ‘phantom amendments’ are made to bills in committee after being voted on without any accountability whatsoever. That’s not acceptable.
We should require that all committees meet these standards. We should also require that all committees–especially the Rules Committee–webcast their proceedings and post complete transcripts online–with obvious exceptions for those panels dealing with state secrets and classified information.
To ensure there is proper oversight, Congress should also review its internal committee structure and eliminate duplicative programs and jurisdictions. This hasn’t been done in 15 years. Think about that. We can’t ask members to become more engaged if they sit on three different committees and more than a handful of subcommittees. We currently have rules regarding member limitations, but of course they’re frequently waived to have warm bodies in those slots. We need to rethink that.
An Ongoing and Inclusive Effort
I know I’ve covered a lot of ground here, and thrown out a lot of ideas. Some of them may get off the ground in the next Congress; others may not. But it’s vital that we have the discussion, and equally vital that the discussion start now.
Reform should be an ongoing and inclusive effort. I don’t have all the answers, and wouldn’t pretend to. I welcome ideas and helping hands from any lawmaker or citizen about how we can make this institution function again.
Americans who long for a better government must continue to speak out. And when they do, we have to listen.
The People’s House
Don’t confuse my enthusiasm for any illusion about how well these reforms will be received. I can remember early on in my career, as a member of the ‘Gang of Seven,’ how I would get long stares from Members–many of them in my own party. Some would walk the other way. Some would put themselves directly in my face.
That’s probably the reaction I’ll get to some of the things I’ve talked about here today. But some changes have to be made, and we can’t keep kicking the can down the road. We’ve run out of road.
It’s time to do what we say we’re going to do. For our constituents, our government, and the people’s House, settling for the “next best thing” is no longer good enough.
Exactly one hundred years ago, Uncle Joe Cannon–who ruled the House with an iron fist–faced a revolt from insurgent Republicans and Democrats. Even though his fall from power was imminent, Speaker Cannon refused to resign, calling it a ‘confession of weakness or mistake or an apology.’ That right there was Cannon’s mistake. That gavel, those powers–they weren’t his to use as a personal guard or shield. They were given to him to guard and shield the interests of the American people.
So the Speakership foundered over the next decade, until late 1925, when Nick Longworth told the House on the day he was sworn in: ‘I want to effectively assist you in bringing about universal recognition of the fact that this House, closer as it is to the people than any similar body and more directly responsive to their will, is in very truth, as it ought to be, the most dominant legislative assembly in the world.’
Let that be our goal: a people’s House that is quiet in its effectiveness, but unmistakable in its pride and purpose.
We should pursue this work as if the future of the institution depended on it–because it does.
Thank you for having me. I look forward to taking your questions.
Representative John Boehner (R-OH) is the House Republican Leader.
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