Stay Tuned

Posted January 13, 2009 at 3:49pm

There’s good news and bad news on the comity and procedural fronts as the 111th Congress gets under way — good, in generalized statements of bipartisanship and efforts to control earmarks, bad in the furious reaction of House Republicans to the Democrats’ new rules package.

In the midst of this deep recession, we’re encouraged that leaders of both parties are pledging cooperation and open-mindedness as the incoming Obama administration tries to come up with a recovery package.

We’ll soon see whether this is just the usual lip service that the idea of bipartisan cooperation always gets at the outset of a new Congress — whereupon ideology and the thirst for partisan advantage cause more bitter battles between the parties — or whether majority Democrats are willing to consider Republican ideas and whether Republicans offer them in a constructive spirit.

The rancorous Jan. 6 House debate on the Democrats’ new rules package was not a good sign of things to come, with Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), ranking member on the Rules Committee, charging that the package contained “a host of new procedural gimmicks to stifle debate and perpetuate partisanship.”

His primary target was a new limit on the minority’s ability to offer a motion to recommit on pending legislation. Most neutral observers believe that Republicans in the 110th Congress often used the device not to offer alternatives, but to either kill bills or fashion embarrassing choices for Democrats from conservative districts.

The new rule — providing that the GOP alternative would become the pending measure “forthwith” and not be referred back to committee — does not deprive the minority its opportunity to offer an alternative. We don’t think the new rules themselves will necessarily stifle comity, but the hostile GOP reaction suggests that the atmosphere of cooperation is fragile, indeed.

On the other hand, we’re pleased that both parties are determined to get the volume of legislative earmarks under control, make the earmarking process more transparent and, perhaps, ban unauthorized earmarks entirely.

The chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees announced they would limit “non-project based” earmarks to $8.5 billion in fiscal 2010, half what they were in 2006, and will require Members to post their earmarking requests on their Web sites.

The watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense regards the moves as “steps in the right direction” but notes that a better plan would be to also post requests on the Web sites of committees of jurisdiction, making searches easier.

Republicans insisted that the new rules should apply to 2009 appropriations, which have yet to be voted on — a fair request — and a group led by Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) has called for banning funding measures not previously authorized by Congress. We support that proposal.

But the fact is that earmarks are a minor problem, accounting for 1 percent of discretionary spending. Congress’ big test will come over the $800 billion economic stimulus package. Will that be fashioned, debated and voted upon in the open, constructive manner that citizens expect in the Obama era? Stay tuned.