Republicans need new rules to aid their policy priorities.
The big question about Republicans as they seek to regain a majority in Congress is what they've learned in the wilderness. Which is why House GOP leader John Boehner's speech last week on Congressional reform deserves more attention.
Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, Mr. Boehner promised changes that would increase transparency and assist in reducing the growth of government. This includes a promise that all legislation be constitutional—which may appear to be a token bow to the tea party but would have the practical effect of making the Constitution's limits on government part of our contemporary debates. This can't do any harm and would be educational.
Another good idea is Mr. Boehner's vow to publish the text of all bills online at least three days prior to a vote, as well as to allow open rules on spending bills. Former GOP leader Tom DeLay gave short shrift to open rules, but Nancy Pelosi has seen that bad habit and raised, making this the first Congress in memory not to consider a single bill under an open amendment process. This has barred spending hawks like Arizona's Jeff Flake from putting embarrassing spending items up for a floor vote.
Mr. Boehner also proposed to break spending bills into smaller bills for each federal agency or function rather than piling education with health care, for example, into a giant log-rolling exercise. The man who would be Speaker didn't say whether he'd let reformers like Mr. Flake onto the Appropriations Committee, where the spending culture is ingrained. But he ought to do so, and we'd recommend that he also impose term limits for Appropriators, so it wouldn't be a life-time pork-barrel sinecure.
Most intriguingly, Mr. Boehner suggested that "we ought to start at square one and give serious consideration to revisiting, and perhaps rewriting, the 1974 Budget Act." Now he's getting somewhere. That law, passed over the veto of a Watergate-weakened Richard Nixon, further rigged the budget process to abet spending. It killed the President's impoundment power not to spend money, and it established the annual "budget baseline" that makes spending increases automatic. Thus even a reduction in the amount of spending increase in a program becomes a budget "cut" that special interests can attack. Mr. Boehner should consult Budget ranking Member Paul Ryan and former Member Chris Cox for reform ideas
The larger insight here is that Democrats have organized Congress and written its rules to aid and abet their policy priorities. During their last time in the majority, Republicans didn't do enough to rewrite those rules to assist their ostensible goal of limiting government power and reducing spending and taxes. They shouldn't make the same mistake again.
In addition to rewriting the Budget Act, Republicans need to assert control over the scoring conventions at the Congressional Budget Office that typically underestimate spending—see ObamaCare. Ditto for the rules at the Joint Tax Committee that underestimate the impact of tax changes on taxpayer behavior and economic growth.
The GOP will have many priorities if it wins a House majority, and some Members will say that "process" reforms are a waste of political capital. We'd agree about many process changes. But Republicans won't succeed in their professed goal of cutting spending, boosting the economy, and reforming the entitlement state without disassembling Congress's tax-and-spending machine.