Thursday, November 01, 2007

Real Reform for Congress, GOP?

Update: Putting this update at the top so people find it. The WSJ blogs on Reagan 21 here. They link to the group's policy paper. (Hat Tip: Club for Growth). Also check out Michelle.

Update II: Patrick Ruffini looks at the Reagan 21 website and spells out how the organizers are missing out on a great opportunity.

As one who worked in the House of Representatives for years, I have been skeptical about efforts by Members of the House to change the institution. While Republicans have aggressively and sincerely been pushing for more transparency about earmarks for example (which is good), they have continued to secure millions of dollars in earmarks, and to oppose amendments to eliminate them from spending bills. I guess that's half-a-loaf, but if we're going to tackle earmarks, I'd like to ensure that it actually reduces spending.

My skepticism notwithstanding, I see signs that Members of the House and Senate are pushing real change. The first comes in the form of a new caucus called 'Reagan 21:'

Frustrated by what they see as a party gone astray, a group of House and Senate conservatives led by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) today will announce a new bicameral caucus aimed at returning fiscal restraint, ethics and national defense to the fore of the GOP’s philosophical and policy platforms.

The group — which in addition to DeMint and Hensarling is made up of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) and Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) — will officially announce the creation of their new caucus — dubbed Reagan21. They also will unveil their “statement of policy commitment,” which includes 10 key positions on issues ranging from Congressional earmarks to health care reform...

Although members of the group declined to comment on the caucus on the record, one Member involved said the lawmakers believe the GOP’s elected leaders have strayed from the party’s traditional fiscal conservative roots.

“A few of us here are trying to change the culture” of the GOP, the lawmaker said, adding that “the core values of the Republican Party are not being adhered to by the party inside Congress. But there’s a yearning for it outside the Beltway.”

According to Republicans familiar with the effort, it arose from meetings between DeMint, who chairs the Republican Steering Committee in the Senate, and Hensarling, who chairs the Republican Study Committee in the House. Both organizations are the hub for conservative efforts in the chambers, and following the disastrous 2006 election, DeMint and Hensarling began holding meetings in an effort to better coordinate their efforts...

More on Reagan 21 here.

And while it might turn out to be a rear-guard action designed to protect existing privileges, even the appropriators are talking about reform -- at least, House Republican appropriators are:

A small group of Republican appropriators is working to restructure the earmarking system from within. The effort is part of an uncoordinated series of attempts to re-examine how special projects are doled out.

The group was initially organized by Rep. Frank R. Wolf , R-Va., and dubbed the “Wolf Pack” by one member. It is made up of seven of the 29 Republican appropriators and has been quietly meeting on a weekly basis.

The members say they want to come up with a recipe for change that appropriators can accept...

While those talks have proceeded for the last three weeks, several other ad hoc groups of lawmakers have spoken separately about how to change the earmark system:
  • A different group of House and Senate members say they will not seek “new” earmarks. They call themselves “Reagan 21” and say they want to show conservatives that they share tight-fisted principles.
  • Conservative Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey of Georgia introduced legislation (HR 3738) that would cap appropriations earmarks and divide the dollars equally among members of the House and Senate.
  • The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) appointed a five-member task force, including two appropriators, to look into disparities in earmarking.
CBC members said they felt compelled to act after a Congressional Quarterly study of data compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense revealed wide disparities in earmark distribution. Party leaders, appropriators and politically endangered members of both parties get more earmarked funds than their rank-and-file colleagues; the average black Democrat got half as much money in the House-passed fiscal 2008 spending bills as the average white Democrat; and Latino lawmakers did even worse, on average...
I regard these efforts as extremely hopeful signs. Democrats in Congress have seen their approval ratings plummet, creating a real opportunity for the GOP. Regrettably, the approval ratings of Republicans are even worse. Since the Republicans hold the White House, it's unlikely that the GOP can do what the Democrats did in 2006: act as an empty vessel, without an agenda, and benefit from voter anger at the party in power.

Instead, it's critical that the GOP rehabilitate itself so it offers a superior vision than that of Democrats. By being serious about changing the institution -- including changing the way that Republicans have done business -- these reformists offer a better way forward.

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