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With an eye toward the election, Boehner calls for major changes in the House

By Paul Kane
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 5:03 PM

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Thursday called for a reorganization of the congressional funding process for federal agencies, including rules that would eliminate a program every time a new one is created, and consideration of re-writing the law that has governed congressional spending since 1974.

Boehner, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, outlined internal House changes that he believes would make it more difficult to increase funding for government programs and would open up the legislative process. He rebuked the way Democrats and Republicans have run the chamber for the past decade.

"Congressional rules are rigged to make it easy to increase spending and next to impossible to cut spending. Most spending bills come to the floor prepackaged in a manner that makes it as easy as possible to advance government spending and programs, and as difficult as possible to make cuts," Boehner said at the conservative think tank in downtown Washington.

Boehner's push, coming amid criticism from Democrats who say he "wrote the book" on the rules he now disparages, is the latest step by the GOP leader to outline the agenda Republicans would pursue if they secure the House majority by winning at least 39 seats at the Nov. 2 midterm election. These changes, according to Boehner's closest allies, would be central to his mission should he become House speaker. They said he believes that a better process for considering laws would lead to better laws.

The proposals are wide-ranging and could lead to spirited debates on the House floor next year, with back-bench lawmakers having newfound freedom to push their own amendments regardless of what leaders demand. These include:

* Instituting a "CutGO" rule that would require any new federal program to be paired up with an equal-sized cut in a different existing federal program, so that the legislation would not increase spending;

* Eliminating roll call votes on minor legislation that names post offices or other memorial bills, passing them during the non-legislative periods the House is open;

* Giving more authority to House committees that draft legislation, rather than allowing leaders to rewrite bills before they come to the floor;

* Requiring committees to make proposed legislation public for three days and proposed amendments public for one day before the panels consider the legislation;

* Reworking the Appropriations Committee's consideration of funding for federal agencies, which is currently done in 12 separate bills in which disparate departments and agencies are cobbled together and one vote is held for the entire funding. Instead, for example, the Commerce Department would get its own vote on its budget, as would NASA - a pair of agencies currently placed inside the same funding bill.

Democrats responded that Boehner, who previously served as education committee chairman, abandoned any spirit of comity soon after he helped secure bipartisan votes for the landmark "No Child Left Behind" law.

"The fact is, the only bipartisan moment Rep. Boehner can point to is working with me nine years ago on a bill President Bush had made a priority. Everything since has been partisan opposition to issues of great importance to America's middle class. And that partisan opposition has been very costly to our economy and to our country," said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), now chairman of the education committee.

In his speech, Boehner did not resolve the still nettlesome issue of "earmarks," single line items placed into the 12 appropriations bills, often by a single lawmaker. Criticized by government watchdogs who say they are often favors for lobbyists who donate campaign contributions, earmarks have slowed in recent years. Earlier this year Boehner exacted a no-earmark pledge from his GOP conference and Democrats prohibited any earmarks to private contractors.

However, divided congressional Democrats could not enact any of the appropriations bills this year, leaving many lawmakers believing that the earmark pledges were hollow actions taken for political gain as voters grew angry at government spending.

In his AEI address, Boehner cited his own two-decade-long prohibition from seeking earmarks for his Cincinnati-based district, but he said next year's earmark policy will be a "collective decision made by our members."

The most far-reaching proposal may have been the suggestion to rewrite the Budget Act, which has governed congressional spending since 1974. However, it is tied to "rules instead of statutes," Boehner said, noting that in both the House and Senate the act can be waived with a sufficient number of votes.

Instead, he said, it should be turned into a binding law that cannot be waived, making it harder to increase government spending.

Boehner also reiterated planks from the new GOP agenda, "A Pledge to America," unveiled last week, such as mandating the constitutional authority for any new legislation.

"Some changes have to be made, and we can't keep kicking the can down the road. We've run out of road. It's time to do what we say we're going to do," he said.

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