House bills offer glimpse into tea party’s vision for United States

If the House ran America, what would America look like?

It would no longer have a far-reaching health-care law. The House voted to repeal that legislation in January.

It would no longer have federal limits on greenhouse gases. The House voted to ax them in April.

And it would not have three government programs for homeowners who are in trouble on their mortgages. The House voted to end them all.

These and many other changes are included in an ambitious slate of more than 80 bills that have passed since Republicans took control of the chamber this year.

Most of these measures will die in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Still, they are a revealing kind of vision statement — the first evidence of how a tea-party-influenced GOP would like to reshape the country.

That vision is aimed at dismantling some Democratic priorities. The GOP’s philosophy holds that paring back an expensive and heavy-handed government bureaucracy would help restore the country’s financial footing and give private businesses the freedom to grow and create jobs.

After seven months, it is still only half a vision.

On major issues such as health care, climate change and bad mortgages, the House has affirmed that fixes are needed — if it can ever manage to repeal the old ones.

It hasn’t said exactly what those changes should be.

“The Republican Party is sort of united in terms of what they’re against. But there’s not a great deal of consensus right now in terms of what they’re for,” said Michael D. Tanner, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute and an expert on health-care reform and recent GOP history.

This month, a divided Congress finally staggered into its summer recess. Its business has been split between the terrifyingly urgent — including standoffs that threatened a government shutdown and a national debt default — and the purely theoretical.

The theoretical part has come because neither the House nor the Senate is likely to approve big ideas dreamed up by the other. The Democrat-held Senate has reacted to this by withdrawing into legislative hibernation.

House Republicans have instead been passing bills that tell a story — about the country they want but can’t quite get.

“The new House Republican majority was voted into office to change the way Washington does business and make the government accountable to the American people once again. Our agenda has reflected these goals,” said Laena Fallon, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.).

But even within the Republican ranks, there is a desire for more details about the party’s vision for replacing Democratic policies.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (S.C.) said the GOP must put forward its own solutions on issues such as health care, job creation and mortgage assistance. He said he is not convinced that there is a need to take on climate change in the same way.

“Being the party of ‘no’ . . . is an appropriate response” in some cases, Gowdy said. “It’s not appropriate when you’ve been extensively critical of someone else’s ideas” and have none to replace them, he said.

“For substance reasons, and for credibility reasons, we also need to have a comprehensive . . . alternative that goes beyond saying, ‘Your plan is bad,’ ” Gowdy said.

The best-known part of the House’s vision has to do with spending. The chamber passed a budget that calls for a Medicare overhaul that would force new recipients to buy private insurance after 2022. It also passed, with five Democratic backers, a bill that demanded a balanced budget amendment: essentially, a spending limit written into the Constitution.

But the House’s measures have gone far beyond the budget.

It has passed legislation to forbid new energy-efficiency standards for light bulbs and to punish shining a laser pointer at an airplane in flight. It voted to take away federal funding for National Public Radio and for public financing of presidential campaigns.

The House also took a stand against President Obama on the military campaign in Libya, rejecting a motion to approve U.S. involvement. And it voted to rein in Environmental Protection Agency efforts against “mountaintop-removal coal mines” by requiring the EPA to defer to decisions by state regulators.

On three major issues, the House seemed to acknowledge that simply repealing a Democratic idea might not be enough — and that it did not have its own solutions.

On Jan. 19, for instance, 242 Republicans and three Democrats voted to repeal the landmark health-care law.

In place of the legislation, Republicans had said they would craft their own solutions for problems involving high costs and the denial of coverage for preexisting conditions. Their slogan, outlined in last fall’s Pledge to America, was “Repeal and Replace.”

No replacement has occurred.

A bill that would limit liability in malpractice lawsuits has passed in committee. Other ideas are being developed, aides said.

On climate change, the EPA is requiring larger power plants and industrial facilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to obtain new permits.

But many in Congress worried that the effort would drive up energy prices and kill jobs. So in April, 236 House Republicans and 19 Democrats voted to make the EPA stop in its tracks.

In place of regulations, they approved only a vaguely worded “sense of the Congress” about climate change.

“There is established scientific concern over warming of the climate system,” the bill says. It adds that Congress should attack the problem “by developing policies that do not adversely affect the American economy, energy supplies, and employment.”

But how? When? The measure doesn’t say.

And it doesn’t need to, said Tim Phillips, president of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity. He said his group thinks that simply repealing this legislation — and the health-care law — is enough for now.

“The big-government assault [has been] so damaging to the economy and the government. They’re doing the right thing by just trying to stop and reverse,” Phillips said.

Environmental groups have said that the House’s bill would leave the nation powerless to fight an escalating global problem.

“They clearly aren’t going to pass any legislation themselves that would address that pollution,” said Dan Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The House also has voted to eliminate three federal programs meant to aid homeowners in danger of foreclosure. Two help modify loans to create lower payments. The third gives no-interest loans to borrowers who are in trouble. All have been criticized for moving too slowly and helping too few.

In March, the House decided to do away with them. The Congressional Budget Office said that doing so could save taxpayers $2.4 billion.

“None of the programs . . . have been successful,” Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), wrote in a statement.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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