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Three Commitments Conservatives Should Get From a New Speaker

The Republican Conference will elect a new speaker soon.  When Republican House members consider who the next speaker should be, they should bear in mind that equivocating about conservatism cannot be allowed to take the place of executing a conservative legislative agenda.  Here are three commitments conservatives in the House should get from a potential speaker.  These commitments will help move a conservative agenda in the House.

Return power to the people:  The 10th Amendment to the Constitution states that, “[t]he powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”  That straightforward language makes clear that the people have the power unless the Constitution gives it to the federal government.  And the Constitution leaves most of the power to the people of the United States.

However, for approximately the last 100 years, the legislative branch has made a mockery of this amendment.  The federal government has involved itself in areas where the Founders never intended them to engage.  Education, transportation, healthcare, and the environment are some of the many areas in which the federal government has legislated contrary to what the 10th Amendment allows.  The result is an excess of bureaucracy, regulation, and constraints on liberty.

A new speaker should have as a priority returning power to the people, and announcing a “glide path to freedom,” where federal programs that overstep the bounds of the 10th Amendment are identified, prioritized, and legislation moved in committee and on the floor to roll them back over a period of several years.  This will allow the states a glide path to readjust to a return to constitutional normality.  Such a grace period will provide an orderly and predictable way to transfer power from the federal government back to the states, where much of it rightly belongs.

Reform the way the suspension calendar is used: This sounds technical and unimportant, but it is straightforward and matters a great deal.  As the Congressional Research Service (CRS)  explains,

“[s]uspension of the rules is used to provide expedited consideration of relatively non-       controversial legislation. It is the most commonly used method for raising measures for consideration in the House. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of measures that became public laws in recent Congresses have been considered by this method.”

Unfortunately, the suspension calendar has been used for substantive legislation, such as bills related to foreign policy, and reauthorizing programs that cost the taxpayers millions.  Many of these bills are put on the floor of the House for debate on “fly in days,” when members are traveling to Washington, D.C., for that week’s session.  As a result, many members are not present for floor debate on these bills.  Too many of these suspension bills are approved by voice vote on the House floor, with only a few coming up for a recorded vote later in the evening of the fly-in day.

Using the suspension calendar to legislate matters of substance short circuits the legislative process, denies the voters of the benefits of real debate, and can be used to slip into the floor schedule items that leadership would prefer pass with as little notice as possible.  Critics of this approach may claim that removing substantive legislation from the suspension calendar will leave the House insufficient time to address all the legislation is must consider.

That is a symptom of Congress taking on power that is supposed to be left to the states and the people by the 10th Amendment.  Entrenched politicians are the ones who have overburdened Congress with responsibilities it should not have.  Forcing them to deal with the legislative monster they have created — while not suspending the rules to do so — may concentrate members of the House on the goal of reducing their workload by right sizing the federal government.  Congress has grown the federal government so much that they lack the time to properly oversee it.  The suspension calendar is not the way to manage the problem.  Shrinking the size of the government is what is needed.

The new speaker should reform this practice to only allow bills on the suspension calendar that name buildings, commemorate historic events or people, or set aside a week or month to mark an important cause or observance, for example.  Suspending the rules has sadly become a way for the House to conduct a fair portion of its business.  It results in a democracy deficit.  This practice must change under the next speaker.  Substantive bills that impact our foreign policy and commit taxpayer dollars deserve substantive debate.

Make constitutional authority statements relevant:  In early 2011, the Republican House made an important reform to the way the chamber does business.  According to CRS, “all bills (H.R.) and joint resolutions (H.J.Res.) must provide a document stating ‘as specifically as practicable the power or powers granted to Congress in the Constitution to enact the bill or joint resolution.’”

In theory this is a worthwhile practice, however “the rule appears to leave each individual Member free to ascertain, by whatever means the Member deems appropriate, his/her own basis for constitutional authority.”  Constitutional authority statements are only as meaningful as the member wants them to be.  Sadly, the wise requirement that bills have a constitutional authority statement has, at times, descended into farce.

The Republican Study Committee, a large group of House Republicans, wound up compiling a “Questionable Constitutional Authority Statement of the Week,” to highlight how thin many of these statements are.  Far too often, these statements are regarded as boxes to check, not constitutional promises to keep.

To reform this process, a new speaker should commit to change the rules of the House to require that during general debate, the minority and the majority shall each be allowed one specific “motion regarding constitutional authority.”  This motion would allow a House member to ask the bill’s sponsor, or the sponsor’s designee, to respond on the floor to questions about the constitutional authority statement attached to the bill.  The motion would allow for up to ten minutes of back-and-forth discussion about the statement.  That time period would be be able to be extended.

This reform would put a renewed emphasis on the importance of following the Constitution when legislating, and would allow the public to encourage their House members to take constitutional authority statements seriously and ask questions about them. Vigorous and fair debate on the House floor about constitutional authority statements, governed by a formal rule and limited in duration so the opportunity could not be used to try and derail legislation, could refocus legislators on the constitutional implications of bills before they are voted on.  It would provide a mechanism that House members could use to draw attention to legislation that may fall short of respecting the narrow parameters within which the federal government is authorized to act by the Constitution.

Congress needs to get back to the business of following the Constitution and debating bills in a way that is more open.  Over the last many years, increasing the size of the federal footprint, expediting important legislation under limited debate, and allowing the requirement to cite the Constitution when introducing legislation to become rote paperwork have become the way to do business inside the Beltway.

These practices should come to an end.  Changing them would orient the House in a more conservative direction while increasing debate.  That would be good for the House, the Congress, and the voters.

Neil Siefring is president of Hilltop Advocacy, LLC, and a former Republican House staffer.  His opinions are his own.  Follow Neil on Twitter @NeilSiefring