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.