WASHINGTON -- House Speaker John Boehner has reintroduced a welcome if sometimes messy change in what was once known as "the people's House": the right to amend pending legislation.
The House has been debating -- and amending -- a bill this week that would cut federal spending in the remaining seven months of the 2011 fiscal year and keep this $3.5 trillion-a-year government running through September. Don't confuse this with the proposed budget offered by President Obama. That plan is for fiscal year 2012, which begins in October and will be fought over for much if not most of this year, beginning in April when Republicans bring their own budget to the House floor.
This week's deficit-cutting debate is an attempt by Republicans to enact a midcourse change in this year's spending binge by cutting unspent funds by upwards of $100 billion.
This may come as a shock to some people who do not follow the sometimes arcane legislative procedures in Congress, but allowing House members to offer changes to spending bills (as they can do in the Senate) was a radical idea under the Democrats' autocratic rule.
Floor amendments were not allowed on spending bills that were usually brought to the floor for an up-or-down vote. Democrats placed restrictions on other bills, too, like President Obama's healthcare legislation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi allowed no significant opportunities to amend the bill that a majority of Americans opposed, and the rule was "let's shove this down their throats anyway."
Boehner, on the other hand, thinks the legislative process should be as open and transparent as possible -- where amendment are allowed -- and he made that a major promise in the GOP's "Pledge to America" in the midterm elections.
The argument for banning amendments on spending is short and undemocratic: With 435 oft-unruly House members, an avalanche of risky amendments could take a long time and reshape legislation in unexpected ways. Boehner's response is, "So what?" The voters want us to rein in out-of-control spending, and their representatives should have a chance to voice any objections, pro or con, on how much should be cut (or added) and where.
By Thursday, the House had disposed of 46 amendments and hundreds more were lined up to be heard. Debate has been intense but welcome by the members, though things have not always gone the way Boehner and other Republican leaders wanted.
When an amendment was offered to cut funding for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter engine -- a major employer in Boehner's Ohio district -- tea-party House Republicans broke with their leaders and joined with Democrats to eliminate the alternative-engine program.
Both the Bush and Obama administrations have tried to cancel the defense-spending provision in the past but without success. So far, the program has cost $3 billion, and billions more will be needed to finish work on an engine that the Pentagon does not want.
But on Wednesday's vote, 110 Republicans teamed up with 123 Democrats to kill the alternative engine, handing Obama a major victory but a huge loss for Boehner and his leadership who backed the project.
"This constitutional, republican form of government is messy and debate is messy, but I think it's so important that, for the first time in how many years now, members can actually take their argument to the floor, have a debate, force a recorded vote on their issue," Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa told the Washington Post.
Notably, not all of the budget-cutting amendments would actually cut spending. Some would simply take money from one program and give it to another. In one amendment, Rep. Anthony Weiner, Democrat of New York, would cut nearly $300 million from NASA in order to restore funding for the COPS community-policing program. In another, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., a New Jersey Democrat, would pull $510 million from the Department of Homeland Security's research-and-development program and use it to assist local governments to hire police and firefighters. Both amendments passed.
Other amendments strike at relatively smaller amounts of money but scandalously wasteful spending nonetheless. Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, is offering an amendment to kill funding for government research into how effectively men use condoms and whether yoga helps menopausal women who have hot flashes.
No one expects the House budget-cutting bill to pass the Senate when it returns from its winter recess later this month. But Democrats, who still rule that chamber by a narrow margin, will have to figure out how they can keep the government funded beyond mid-March that can pass muster in the Republican-run House.
Even though they were in charge, the Democrats never produced a budget last year, putting the government on a continuing resolution until mid-March, which is the fiscal equivalent of being on autopilot.
Meantime, Boehner and his Republican leadership have returned participatory democracy to the House where both parties have a chance to shape legislation. Sure it's messy, but it marks the end of the Pelosi dictatorship.