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Friday, February 18, 2011

Congress Finally Earns Its Pay, Actually Engaging In Democracy In Session

Unlike years past, the budget debates in the House were vigorous and democratic


By Kimberley A. Strassel, Wall Street Journal, February 18, 2011

Washington and Lincoln—those birthday boys—ought to be smiling.

The 112th House of Representatives spent the week debating how to fund the rest of fiscal 2011. In sharp contrast to his recent predecessors, Speaker John Boehner is sticking to his vow to make the chamber more open and accountable. His committee chairmen having presented a base spending bill, Mr. Boehner threw open the floor for full discussion. Some 600 amendments came pouring in.

“Chaos,” “a  headache,” “turmoil,” “craziness,” “confused,” “wild,” “uncontrolled” are just a few of the words the Washington press corps has used to describe the ensuing late-night debates. There’s a far better word for what happened: democracy. It has been eons since the nation’s elected representatives have had to study harder, debate with such earnestness, or commit themselves so publicly. Yes, it is messy. Yes, it is unpredictable. But as this Presidents Day approaches, it’s a fabulous thing to behold.

And about time. The Democrats’ style of management—on ObamaCare, cap and trade, financial regulation, stimulus—was to secretly craft bills and ram through a vote, denying members a chance to read, to debate, to amend. They learned this from former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who infamously micro- managed his GOP majority from 2003-2005. The House had become a place where the leadership called all the shots and the majority saluted.

But this week the country witnessed the House coming together to argue over and exercise its foremost responsibility: power over the purse. And from the look of the amendments, both sides were eager to use that funding authority to put the Obama policy machine on notice.

There were amendments to prohibit funds for the mortgage-modification program (Darrell Issa, R., Calif.), for wasteful broadband grants (Jim Matheson, D., Utah), for further TSA full-body scanning machines (Rush Holt, D., N.J.), for the salaries of State Department envoys tasked with shutting Guantanamo Bay (Tim Huelskamp, R., Kan.). And amendments designed to cut off funding for IRS agents enforcing ObamaCare.

Americans got to see what happens when members of Congress exercise their collective knowledge of the federal government. Mr. Issa put forward amendments to prohibit the National Institutes of Health from spending money studying the impact of yoga on hot flashes in menopausal women. Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum offered to strike funding for the Department of Defense to sponsor Nascar race cars. Indiana Republican Todd Rokita proposed getting rid of money provided for dissertation research under a 1970 Housing Act.

Neglected questions were once again asked. Should we get rid of federal funding for the arts? Should the government be designating federal monuments? What’s the role of NASA? And Congress finally got to air some dirty secrets.

One of this week’s more symbolically rich cuts came from Arizona’s Republican Jeff Flake, who won an amendment erasing $34 million for the National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown, Pa. The center, despite serving no real purpose, had been protected for decades, via earmarks, by the late Defense appropriations chair John Murtha.

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