Beyond the soothing titles, some legislative debacles

Walter Pincus
Reporter December 24, 2012

What politicians would think a way to stop the oncoming sequester in defense spending — across-the-board reductions of $500 billion over the next 10 years — could be done by a last-minute cutting of funds for Obamacare, the Dodd-Frank law and approval of a controversial medical tort reform bill?

The answer is Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and his House Republican leadership team. They actually tried to do just that as part of last Thursday’s legislative debacle in the House over Boehner’s so-called Plan B, which was to prevent an increase in income taxes for all but those with $1 million incomes.

Like all pieces of legislation these days, Plan B had a soothing title: Permanent Tax Relief for Families and Small Businesses Act of 2012. Last Thursday, it never made it to the House floor.

But Boehner’s legislative move began the night before with another bizarre, hastily-put-together plan designed to buy conservative Republican votes for Plan B.

This so-called Plan C was labeled the Spending Reduction Act of 2012. It was a 69-page cats-and-dogs collection of social program budget reductions mixed with a handful of earlier passed House measures that never had a chance to make it through the Democratic-controlled Senate or become law.

What going over the 'fiscal cliff' would mean . . .

It was after 8 p.m. last Wednesday night that the Spending Reduction Act of 2012 was distributed to members of the House Rules Committee that had been already been meeting for almost two hours to set rules for House debate the next day that was to include the fiscal 2013 Defense Authorization Bill and Boehner’s Plan B.

Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) tried to reassure Democrats on the panel that the new measure was only a revised version of the Sequester Replacement Reconciliation Act of 2012 that had been approved by the House in May.

At that time, Republican House members provided all 218 votes in favor of the measure, while 183 Democrats and 16 Republicans opposed it.

The White House had promised that President Obama would veto it should it ever pass Congress, saying, “This approach sharply undermines critical domestic priorities, such as efforts to prevent hunger and support low-income families and communities; to expand health care access and implement the Affordable Care Act; to protect consumers and implement the Wall Street Reform Act; and to support homeowners struggling to stay in their homes.”

One other section was wonderfully titled the Help Efficient, Accessible, Low-cost, Timely Healthcare (HEALTH) Act of 2012. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that the measure could save the government some $45 billion over the next 10 years by imposing “limits on medical malpractice litigation in state and federal courts by capping awards and attorney fees, modifying the statute of limitations, and eliminating joint and several liability.” It also would, however, repeal the provisions of the Affordable Care Act that established the Independent Payment Advisory Board, according to the CBO.

In one of those frank and angry outbursts that occasionally takes place when a member of Congress is frustrated by what he or she considers a misuse of the democratic process, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), ranking minority member of the Rules Committee, let loose Wednesday night, saying: “When I say this is a hoax, I’m not even sure that is even strong enough . . .

“You’ve got yourself in a hole. . . . You don’t have enough votes so you are going to throw in here all this crazy stuff that people voted for in May . . . and we’re playing this stupid charade. You are going to stick the country with this dog [meaning the Spending Reduction Act]. . . . You don’t want to take up this [House] bill. Well, tough, I mean, this is the way you run the House of Representatives?”

During floor debate Thursday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said the Spending Reduction Act “cuts $236 billion over the next 10 years in net spending cuts to pay for one year of the sequester,” thus setting aside for one year “the sequester on defense and nondefense discretionary spending.”

Ryan, Boehner and other Republican leaders knew this was a charade as Slaughter had claimed. And although the Spending Reduction Act passed the House on Thursday by a 215-to-209 vote with only Republican support, it did not get Boehner the help he needed.

Plan B died because it was a highly partisan measure and Boehner would not bring to the House floor such a bill that did not have enough Republican votes for final passage. Since there are 241 GOP members and 218 votes are needed for passage, if 24 Republicans oppose a measure, particularly one involving spending or increased revenue, the general practice has been that the Republican leadership will not bring it to the floor.

Unless that practice changes, this country will surely go over the “fiscal cliff” at the end of this month. The nation will face an even tougher new year if House Republicans continue only to allow controversial measures to reach the floor that have Republican votes for passage because in the next Congress only 17 GOP defecting members can deny a Republican speaker that majority floor vote. That all but guarantees, for example, there will be a need for Democratic votes to pass an increase in the debt limit next February.

On a different note, I want to thank Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) for a pre-Christmas present. During the Dec. 20 Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting on the Benghazi, Libya, raid, Boxer noted that funds for diplomatic security for 2012 were $200 million short because of congressional cuts. She then noted, “I love military bands; as a matter of fact I always go to [their] concerts.”

But, she added, a House amendment to cut $200 million from military bands failed, leaving spending for them at $388 million.

The senator’s point, and mine in raising military bands again, is “we need to get our priorities straight.”

Merry Christmas!

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