The Speaker Unchecked

By Robert D. Novak
Monday, May 5, 2008

Operating outside public view, the House Democratic majority is taking extraordinary steps to maintain spending as usual while awaiting the arrival of a Democratic president. Remarkably, the supine House Republican minority hardly resists and even collaborates with its supposed adversaries.

There has been little public Republican protest over the seizure of the appropriating process by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her clique. For the second year, no appropriations bill other than defense is scheduled for passage. Instead, spending details are crafted in the speaker's office, negating President Bush's veto strategy. In a little-noticed maneuver on April 23, Pelosi won passage of a bill preventing billions from being saved through Bush administration Medicaid regulations. Despite the GOP leadership's nominal opposition, House Republicans voted 2 to 1 for higher spending.

Adding in Pelosi's unprecedented tactics in blocking the Colombian free trade agreement, she has in 16 months established herself as one of the most powerful speakers ever. The stunning aspect of Czar Nancy's rule is the degree of Republican acquiescence. Neither the loss of their House majority in 2006 after 12 years nor the prospect of more losses this November has toughened the Republicans.

Republicans have just caught on that Pelosi plans for the second straight year to substitute a continuing resolution for individual appropriations bills. Continuing resolutions in the past consisted of a single sentence keeping spending at the previous year's level, but these documents have become complicated descriptions of spending. At year's end, the Democrats devise an omnibus bill wrapping up all domestic spending -- hamstringing the lame-duck Republican president's resolve to veto generous Democratic appropriations bills one by one.

Less expansive but more audacious is what Democrats are doing to the administration's Medicaid rules, which would impose fiscal integrity on states tapping into the federal funds for that runaway program. The bill passed by the House on April 23 would "temporarily" suspend those rules through March 2009, and the plan is for President Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton to get rid of them for good. Because the president is not subject to pay-as-you-go rules requiring offsets for lost revenue or added spending, the government would lose $17.8 billion over five years and $42.2 billion over 10 years, according to estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

With governors lobbying for the suspension, the House Energy and Commerce Committee was all for it. Two Republican committee members told me they had received the high sign from party leaders that it was all right to vote for the cleverly titled Medicaid Safety Net Act, which was sponsored by the committee's Democratic chairman, John Dingell.

Conservative opposition changed the climate. Inside the committee, John Shadegg of Arizona and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee turned against it -- arousing the ire of the committee's ranking Republican, Joe Barton of Texas. When Barton argued that all 50 governors supported the bill, Shadegg replied that he did not care about governors. "If you believe Medicaid has gone out of control," Shadegg told me, "why would you vote for this bill?"

In a closed-door House Republican conference before the April 23 vote, Minority Whip Roy Blunt opposed the bill on procedural grounds, because there was no opportunity for amendments. All GOP leaders voted against the bill, but their vaunted whip operation stood dormant. With a rare opportunity to go on record against entitlements, House Republicans voted 128 to 62 for spending. Democrats were unanimous as the bill passed 349 to 62.

House Republicans had another chance last Thursday to demonstrate interest in restoring their anti-waste credentials. Republican Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona offered a proposal to keep the individual limit on direct farm payments at the current $40,000 instead of raising it to $60,000, as the House did earlier. The state of the GOP is indicated by the fact that even though Flake's proposal failed, the 104 to 86 supporting vote by Republicans was seen as progress. Voting against it were Blunt, Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam and Republican campaign chairman Tom Cole.

Another motion to lower farm subsidies, by Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, was pending Thursday afternoon when the House adjourned for its usual long weekend of fundraising, politicking and recreation. Unchanged in Nancy Pelosi's House is bipartisan devotion to the three-day workweek.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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