Congressional Republicans plan a positive agenda

See reader comments posted at the end.

As though to make up for the dubious spending/tax package that was rammed through Congress last December, House Speaker Paul Ryan has proposed an undertaking that the Republican caucus may find more congenial – crafting and passing a suite of conservative legislation in 2016.

If conservative bills were blocked in the Senate or vetoed, a predictable result, the Republican presidential nominee and congressional candidates could use them as talking points this fall versus simply attacking the Democratic record. Shades of the tax cut agenda on which Ronald Reagan ran in 1980. Two different paths to November, Philip Klein, Washington Examiner,

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell favors a lower key approach, but he and Ryan agree that it’s time to restore “regular order” in the budgetary process (which would entail not only passing a budget resolution, but enacting all 12 appropriation bills by the start of the fiscal year on October 1). This feat was last accomplished in 1996, and a repeat performance would require Democratic cooperation that won’t necessarily be forthcoming. GOP optimism on smoother spending-bill process faces reality, Kristina Peterson, Wall Street Journal,

At a Congressional Republican retreat in mid-January, Ryan and McConnell outlined their respective ideas. Ryan’s message met with enthusiastic approval, both because he presented a positive vision and because he promised a bottom up approach that would give everyone in the GOP caucus a chance to participate. Perceived as the voice of experience, McConnell was also listened to respectfully. Members: Ryan crushed it at the GOP retreat, Susan Ferrechio, Washington Examiner,

Here is Ryan’s punch line as quoted by another reporter. Speaker Ryan emerges as counterweight to Trump, Cristina Marcos, The Hill,

The country is crying out for solutions. The country is crying out to be unified. The country is crying out for a positive vision that brings us all together. We want a confident America. And now is the time to get to work.

Commentator Charles Krauthammer opines that the reformist conservatism being espoused by various Republican presidential candidates and Speaker Ryan et al. will serve the GOP better in the coming elections than a nakedly populist (Donald Trump) or down the line conservative (Ted Cruz) approach. The battle for the GOP’s soul, Charles Krauthammer,,

My personal preference is for the third ideological alternative, the reform conservatism that locates the source of our problems not in heartless billionaires or crafty foreigners, but in our superannuated, increasingly sclerotic 20th-century welfare-state structures. Their desperate need for reform has been overshadowed by the new populism, but will make its appearance this year in Congress in Speaker Ryan’s promised agenda — boring stuff like welfare reform, health care reform, tax reform and institutional congressional reforms such as the return to “regular order.”

The details of the “promised agenda” remain to be fleshed out, a necessary consequence of a bottom up approach, but here’s a preview. 5 places Paul Ryan wants to make a mark in 2016, Philip Wegman,,

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 2.56.30 PM

Sounds good, but will this proposed agenda live up to its advance billing? We doubt it, and here is why.

1. NATIONAL SECURITY – This plank in the platform recognizes widespread concern about national security threats from ISIS and other terrorist networks. However, ISIS is hardly the gravest security threat the US faces. China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are all considerably more powerful, and none of them is inclined to accept US political and military leadership of the planet. “A 21st-century military” should be prepared to defend US interests against any of these powers if this should prove necessary, and not simply to “defeat ISIS and the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorism.”

To this end, we believe Congress should restore at least some of the defense budget cuts that have been made in recent years, and also attempt to ensure that all of the funds being provided are spent wisely (versus used to support a top-heavy defense bureaucracy, fight climate change, etc.) Among other things, stepped-up funding is needed for the modernization of aging US nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles, installing anti-missile defenses, and maintaining fighting force levels that have been allowed to dwindle without any corresponding reduction in the assigned missions of our ground, sea and air forces. Postelection update: Defense budget,

As for the failure to effectively counter ISIS, this has been due primarily to feckless diplomatic and military strategy versus inadequate capabilities of US military forces. Congress cannot realistically be expected to correct such deficiencies; the next president will bear the responsibility of trying to do so.

2. JOBS AND ECONOMIC GROWTH – We agree that the current administration’s economic record leaves much to be desired, and the outlook seems discouraging too. US economy hits soft patch in fourth quarter [0.7% GDP growth rate], Lucia Mutikani, Reuters,
1/29/16. Evidence mounting that the Fed made a mistake [by starting a planned series of interest rate increases in December], Joseph Lawler, Washington Examiner, 1/16/16.

We also agree that reliance on monetary and fiscal stimulus to bolster the economy has not worked and that, as Ronald Reagan famously said in his first inaugural address, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” This would support the idea of fixing the tax system, cutting regulatory red tape, etc., as is apparently contemplated in the Ryan agenda, but we’re not sure what is intended that has not already been tried or ruled out.

#Committing to “fix the tax code” seems overly general, e.g., this may be a euphemism for cutting taxes to stimulate the economy. And with many lower income workers effectively exempted from paying income taxes (or even receiving “refunds” for taxes they didn’t pay in the first place), promising tax cuts has become an ineffective way to attract political support. Tax cuts can’t motivate Republican base anymore, Megan McArdle,,

I’ve been urging Republicans to find an agenda beyond tax cuts for a while, with no notable success. Mostly I’ve focused on the budget logic, which is simply this: we’ve run out of our ability to cut taxes without substantial cuts to entitlements, and the collapse of Bush’s Social Security reform illustrated that Republicans have absolutely no stomach for cutting entitlements.

The essence of true tax reform would be to eliminate a host of tax preferences (exemptions, deductions and tax credits) while cutting tax rates, and perhaps that’s what is intended. If so, however, why did Congress rush to resurrect or extend scores of individual and business tax preferences in the December spending/tax bill (Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016, or CAA) before taking up the subject of tax reform? Some thoughts about the omnibus budget package,

Far from clearing the way for tax reform, the CAA has complicated matters by creating or reinforcing expectations that numerous tax preferences will be a permanent fixture of the tax law. Just what sort of “tax reform” is envisioned; do House Republicans hope to have “their cake and eat it” by keeping a host of tax preferences and cutting tax rates too? Sorry, but we don’t think such an approach would be politically realistic or fiscally responsible.

#There is no mention of cutting spending to reduce the deficit, probably because no spending cuts are planned. Mandatory spending programs are on autopilot and discretionary spending levels have already been set for fiscal years 2016 and 2017, which leaves tax increases as the only viable way to reduce the growing deficits that are projected. In our view, a conservative agenda should do a lot better than that.

#Halfway measures, such as enhancing congressional oversight over regulatory activities or reserving the right to block regulations (per the Congressional Review Act of 1996) that Congress finds objectionable, will not suffice to “rein in the regulatory state.”

A better idea would be to require affirmative congressional approval before major regulations (annual economic impact of $100 million per year or more) go into effect. The House has passed legislation to this effect several times, most recently on 7/28/15 (H.R. 427). The REINS Act [“Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny”] will keep regulators and their costs in check, Neil Siefring, the Hill,

In this case, and many others, the problem is not passing bills in the House but getting action on them in the Senate. Note that Senator Rand Paul introduced a companion bill (S. 226) to the REINS Act in January 2015; it was sent to committee and vanished without a trace.
Thomas legislative site

#Let’s by all means “maximize the nation’s energy potential,” but what exactly does this mean? The idea that comes to mind is an “all of the above” energy policy, whereby fossil fuel, nuclear, wind, solar, etc. energy will all be developed and utilized. That’s fine if, but only if, the government refrains from mandating or subsidizing some energy sources at the expense of others. In other words, let the free market decide what energy sources will be used subject only to reasonable regulation of bona fide pollutants (not including carbon dioxide, a natural component of the atmosphere that is essential to life on Earth).

Many recent regulations flunk the economic neutrality test, notably the EPA rules requiring reduced carbon emissions from existing power plants, which are now being challenged in the courts but could be blocked much more quickly and surely by legislative action. Postelection update: EPA’s Clean Power Plan,

The House reacted by passing resolutions to block the Clean Power Plan and other environmental regulations. These resolutions were also passed in the Senate on a basically party line vote, but the president vetoed them. Obama defies GOP on climate change with last veto of 2015, John Siciliano, Washington Examiner,

Considered by many to be messaging bills, the resolutions aimed to show opposition to the rules and the president's intent to agree to a global plan on emissions reductions. "Because the resolution would overturn the Clean Power Plan, which is critical to protecting against climate change and ensuring the health and well-being of our Nation, I cannot support it," Obama said in presidential memoranda released Saturday.

To round out this depressing picture, the CAA provided multiyear extensions for a slew of wind and solar tax credits, which means that power from these sources will continue to be heavily subsidized. Congress could have leveled the playing field by the simple expedient of allowing the tax preferences to expire, with no possibility of a presidential veto. In light of what was done, we don’t see much reason to expect constructive changes in energy policy during the remainder of this session of Congress.

3. HEALTHCARE – We agree that GovCare (aka Obamacare) is foundering and something needs to be done about it. The idea of repealing this legislation and replacing it with a better plan is appealing. Here is another example, however, of taking on a task that may prove easier said than done.

Last year after months of study and discussion, congressional Republicans succeeded in getting a bill terminating many provisions of the Affordable Care Act through the Senate (bills meeting the arcane requirements of the reconciliation process cannot be filibustered). This bill (H.R. 3762) also defunded grants to Planned Parenthood for a year.
Reconciliation 2015, House Budget Committee, one-page and section-by-section summaries (download PDFs).

The object of the exercise was “to repeal as much of Obamacare as possible through the budget reconciliation process.” Individual mandate – employer mandate – Medicaid expansion – healthcare insurance subsidies - reimbursement for unfavorable healthcare insurer risk experience – a slew of embedded taxes – etc. The Congressional Budget Office projected that the net result would be a significant deficit reduction. The text of the final bill provided for $379.3B, identified as “the full amount of on-budget savings during the period of fiscal years 2016 through 2025,” to be transferred to the Federal Hospital Insurance Fund in order to extend Medicare solvency.

After all that, the Reconciliation Act was sent to the president and he scornfully vetoed it. President’s veto message,

Republicans in the Congress have attempted to repeal or undermine the Affordable Care Act over 50 times. Rather than refighting old political battles by once again voting to repeal basic protections that provide security for the middle class, Members of Congress should be working together to grow the economy, strengthen middle-class families, and create new jobs. Because of the harm this bill would cause to the health and financial security of millions of Americans, it has earned my veto.

A veto override attempt is scheduled this week, but with no realistic chance of success. Weather postpones vote to override president’s veto of Obamacare repeal,,

Republican efforts in this area have been very low profile thus far. A citizen who looked at the final version of the Reconciliation Act might not be quite sure what he (she) was reading. Even the descriptive title on earlier versions of the bill – “Restoring Americans’ Healthcare Freedom Reconciliation Act” – had fallen by the wayside.

A second phase effort is planned to develop a bill that will ensure the availability of healthcare insurance for Americans who otherwise might have difficulty in arranging for it – probably relying on tax credits versus mandates and fines. Whether there is a floor vote or not, efforts will be made to publicize the provisions of this bill before the November elections. GOP moves to phase 2 on Obamacare: A replacement plan, Susan Ferrechio, Washington Examiner,

[House Energy Chairman Fred] Upton said a "starting point," in his view, would be a proposal he offered last year with Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. That plan embraces many popular GOP alternatives to Obamacare, including tax credits for purchasing health insurance [and] allowing people to buy plans across state lines. "It's more competition, more choices," Upton said. "Let the individuals decide."

We have never been enthusiastic about using tax credits to subsidize healthcare, reasoning that such an approach would not only boost healthcare prices but complicate the tax code to boot. The current system does give an unwarranted advantage to people who participate in employer-provided healthcare plans versus people who have to buy their own healthcare coverage, but this could be cured by eliminating the tax exemption for the value of employer-provided healthcare benefits instead of providing offsetting tax benefits for independent contractors, etc.

Republicans are said to be coalescing around a replacement plan for GovCare, however, which would attain equity by using a combination of tax credits for those without employer-provided coverage and taxes on the beneficiaries of high-end employer plans. Obama vetoes an Obamacare repeal: Here’s what comes next, Sally Pipes (Pacific Research Institute), Washington Examiner,

Such a plan would probably be better than GovCare, but that’s not a very high bar and we continue to believe that the best approach would be to dial back the federal government role in the healthcare system as much as possible. Our proposals were offered several years ago, and we think they still make sense. In search of real healthcare reform,
May 2009.

4. POVERTY AND OPPORTUNITY – Winning the War on Poverty with conservative principles has a nice ring to it, and – as was previously reported - Speaker Ryan invited the Republican presidential candidates to a brainstorming session in January. A fateful presidential election is brewing,
1/18/16, part A (Kemp forum)

We have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, we strongly agree that conservatives (or Republicans) should not “write off” people in the lower economic classes. Their concerns are not inconsequential, and furthermore there are ways to help them that are perfectly compatible with conservative principles. Provide choices in the educational system – abolish the minimum wage and dial back welfare programs – enforce the immigration laws – support the institution of marriage – terminate government practices that unreasonably infringe on personal freedom - promote a healthy economy (see part 2 above).

Social safety nets are needed, as they have been throughout human history, but they should be located as close to the people being helped as possible. Federal management and funding is an awful idea because Washington is too far away from the problems, and shared federal/state responsibility may be even worse because it isn’t clear who is responsible for the results.

Compassionate conservatism tends to spawn Democratic-light entitlement programs, and Democrats can/will offer more. Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution, Michael D. Tanner, Cato Institute,

So what happened at the Kemp Forum? Christie, Rubio, et al. began talking about, you guessed it, enhanced federal tax credits for the indigent. And Trump and Cruz didn’t show up. Possibly Paul Ryan et al. will develop some great ideas for promoting prosperity for all, but we’re inclined to be somewhat skeptical.

5. RESTORING THE CONSTITUTION – We agree that the nation’s political leaders should follow the Constitution, and the growing tendency to do otherwise is disturbing. The crux of the problem is a gradual, but seemingly inexorable shift of power from the national legislature to the executive branch. If the trend continues, Congress will be reduced to a basically ceremonial rubberstamp role and the American republic that was established in 1789 will effectively cease to exist.

We don’t know what type of solutions the House Republicans will propose, but in our view the key is for Congress to assert its constitutional authorities more effectively. Listen up Congress, because you are in trouble,

One constructive step (already discussed) would be passage of the REINS Act to put some limits on the power of the 300+ administrative agencies that churn out a torrent of regulations that dwarfs the legislative output of Congress.

In future legislation, Congress needs to be more careful about delegating powers to administrative agencies. Can Congress get its swagger back? Jonah Goldberg,,

At the Republican congressional retreat in Baltimore last week, I participated in a panel discussion about how to revive Congress' traditional role. It was off the record, but I can certainly repeat a story I told. When my father was in the Army, he was stationed in Japan. His commanding officer, a master at maneuvering the military bureaucracy, gave him one piece of advice. "Goldberg, it's always better to be on the committee that says, 'This must never happen again.'"

In other words, it's easier to wag a finger at mistakes than to be accountable for them. Congress has largely become a finger-wagging bystander. It's great at expressing outrage. But when it comes to the messy work of legislating, it's fallen down on the job.

Another idea would be to end the filibuster rule in the Senate, which enables an entrenched minority to prevent legislation passed by the House from being taken up, let alone acted on. Since Republicans regained control of the House in 2010, use of the filibuster has served to feed the argument that executive branch authorities should be stretched to the breaking point because Congress can’t get anything done.

House conservatives resent the fact that their inputs are being systematically suppressed, and some of them have demanded that the balance be redressed by at least forcing the opponents of conservative proposals to stand on the Senate floor and make their case publicly. Ending the stealth filibuster; it’s a recipe for gridlock if a Senate minority controls which bills can be taken up, [Representative] Trent Franks [R-AZ], Wall Street Journal,

This stealth filibuster, one of the Senate’s most insidious and hidden-in-plain-sight secrets, denies the majority the essential capability to vote on, or even debate, critical legislation supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans—for instance, a bill to stop the nuclear deal with Iran.

Finally, Congress must find some way to sidestep the government shutdown gambit and effectively exercise its “power of the purse.” The current proposal to get appropriation bills done on time might help, but it wouldn’t solve the basic problems. Members of Congress are divided – president and his supporters speak with one voice – media and the general public are predisposed against disruption of the status quo.

Note that Congress prepared individual appropriation bills for fiscal year 2016 (last year’s activity), albeit only after Republicans gave in to demands for an increase in non-defense discretionary spending levels. The appropriation bills were then stitched together into a single bill (the CAA) for reasons of administrative convenience, but they could have been enacted separately with no change in substance.

The balance of power in Washington will probably change after the November elections, so a comparable situation (president’s party has a congressional minority) may not arise for a while. The next time a congressional faction seeks to use the power of the purse, however, it should pick the battle carefully, make its position clear, and be prepared for a long fight if necessary. There is no easy way to resolve the budget battle,


I’m hoping a real fiscal hawk is elected president to provide some leadership, but citizens need to get over Trump first. We’ll see some evidence tonight. – Attorney, public service law firm

Republicans, by their ACTIONS, are the lesser of two evils. I worry that this country has some very serious problems, which very few people seem to be talking about. – SAFE member (DE)

The DC establishment continues to call the tune on these issues. – SAFE director


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