How the New Congress Can Roll Back Obama's Agenda

Soon to be former Speaker Baghdad Bob's Pelosi's assessment on November 2 that the Democrats would hold the House of Representatives to the contrary notwithstanding, it will no longer be under "liberal" Democratic Party control come January. Perhaps she will not like the results when she sees them. The conservatives seem to be in the ascendancy, with more than sixty House seat gains, six Senate seat gains (including the Obama seat in Illinois), and at least ten governorship gains. There is lots of election analysis elsewhere, and I won't try to provide more of it here; suffice it to say that the people have spoken, loudly and effectively. Despite all spin, President Obama won't be able to get contentious new legislation through the Congress, and the House can prevent the funding of some Obama initiatives already passed; Yes he Can't. Lame-duck congress? Bad stuff may happen but there are cures.

Senator DeMint of South Carolina said during his victory celebration that the Republican Party must not only challenge the Obama initiatives but must also remedy its own excesses:

These Republicans know one thing: If they don't do what they say this time, not only are they out, but the Republican Party is dead, and it should be.

Even though President Obama retains veto power over legislation and in any event still has a somewhat compliant Senate, he need have little impact on the power of the Congress to unravel some of his worst initiatives; the Congress had better do it; this article suggests how.

The green stuff being spewed around is not "ObamaMoney"; there is no "ObamaMoney." It all comes from taxes and appropriations passed by the House and the Senate -- or from borrowed funds as approved by both houses. The provisions of the Constitution so providing mean what they say, for some pretty good reasons; at this juncture they are critically important. Under Article I Section 7:

All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.

The White house web site states:

Appropriations bills are initiated in the House. They provide the budgetary resources for the majority of Federal programs, but only a minority of Federal spending.

The House has been very protective of this prerogative despite some dissent in the Senate:

[T]he Constitution is clear about revenue legislation but does not directly address appropriations, or spending, measures. Extending the House's right to originate to the spending category has been a matter of long dispute between the House and the Senate. The Senate has repeatedly asserted its right to originate spending legislation, adopted resolutions to that end, even called for commissions to study the dispute. However, the House has a different perspective. House precedents have defined "revenue measures" to include general appropriations bills, claiming that at the time the Constitution was adopted, "raising revenue" meant "raising money and appropriating the same."

So, whenever the Senate does initiate appropriations legislation, the House practice is to return it to the Senate with a blue piece of paper attached citing a constitutional infringement of House prerogatives. The practice of returning such bills and amendments to the Senate without action is known as "blue-slipping."

Without House action, Senate-initiated spending legislation cannot make it into law. So in practice, the Senate rarely attempts to initiate such bills anymore, and if it does, the House is diligent about returning them. Regardless of one's opinion of the correct interpretation of the Constitutional provision, the House refusal to consider such Senate legislation settles the matter in practice.

Article I, Section 8 provides:

The Congress [both houses acting together, not just one] shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States . ... To borrow Money on the credit of the United States ... .

Article I, Section 9 provides:

No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.

Article II confers none of these powers on the president. Hence, without the Congress, and particularly the House, the president can't fund his rejected initiatives, by appropriations, taxes, or borrowing money.

There are lots of ways to cut federal spending, and some of them make sense. The National Endowment for the Humanities perhaps; there are lots more. However, first things first.

The House must provide separate and detailed appropriations bills.

Appropriations bills are usually lengthy and cumbersome omnibus beasts, little read and less understood. That legislative process is not fixed in concrete. Indeed,

"There is no legislative process anymore," said Fred Wertheimer, the legendary open-government activist who has been monitoring Congress since 1963. "Bills are decided in advance of going to the floor."

. . . .

The House Rules Committee, which is meant to tweak the language in bills that come out of committee, sometimes rewrites key passages of legislation approved by other committees, then forbids members from changing the bills on the floor. Only five times this year [2004] were House members allowed to amend policy bills on the floor, and only 15 percent of bills this year were open to amendment. For the entire 108th Congress, just 28 percent of total bills have been open to amendment -- barely more than half of what Democrats allowed in their last session in power in 1993-94. Further, the Rules Committee has blocked floor votes on legislation opposed by the Bush administration but supported by a majority of the House. For example, a bill to extend benefits to the long-term unemployed has been kept off the House floor despite what backers say is the support of a bipartisan majority.

Some of that must change and, since the Republicans will control the House and therefore the House Rules Committee, much can be done to grab hold of the appropriations process. The House rules are cumbersome and change every session, particularly whenever there is a change in the party holding the majority; they are often difficult to understand. That's one of the reasons why the House Rules Committee is one of the most important committees. It sits rather like a coven of high priests, whose machinations control what the lesser priests do. Each committee also has its own rules, which have similar effects.