WASHINGTON -- A specter is haunting the House of Representatives -- the specter of reforming the flawed budget process. Rep. Paul Ryan, a 34-year-old third-term Republican from Janesville, Wis., is advocating an entirely new congressional system intended to put a serious lid on runaway federal spending. The collateral damage from this effort would emasculate the Cardinals, the mighty House Appropriations subcommittee chairmen.
The appropriators will not easily relinquish their iron grip on spending, but Ryan cannot be written off as a mere junior troublemaker. He has more than half of the 227 Republican congressmen behind him, who sooner or later will demand action on the floor. They reflect the growing discomfort inside the congressional GOP over massive federal budget deficits.
The budget process is one of the largely overlooked scandals in American government. The Budget and Impoundment Control Act, passed in 1974 as part of the post-Watergate reforms, has failed to control. That failure has been ignored by both Republicans and Democrats, even in the 10 years since Republicans gained control of Congress. Never before have the Appropriators been less controlled as they pack their bills with pork earmarked to individual needs of lawmakers.
It has been noted in the Republican cloakrooms that Ryan has not been his usual optimistic self lately, but has been voicing concerns about the deepening fiscal hole. Ryan, a former speechwriter for Jack Kemp, is the purest of supply-siders but does not share Kemp's disinterest in balanced budgets. Along with other conservatives, he worries about the present flawed process leading to tax increases rather than spending cuts.
On Feb. 9, Ryan introduced the Family Budget Protection Act (a total rewrite of the 1974 act despite its corny nomenclature) as a major project of the Republican Study Committee. His co-sponsors are two freshman congressmen: Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Chris Chocola of Indiana.
The lack of seniority by its sponsors belies the bill's support by more than a hundred House members. One member of the House Republican leadership, Conference Chairman Christopher Cox of California, has signed on. Another 30 or so Republicans are backing a less sweeping budget reform sponsored by moderate Reps. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Michael Castle of Delaware. That adds up to a solid majority inside the Republican conference.
Ryan's bill would set rigid spending caps, permitting growth only to the extent of inflation. It would allow money saved by pork-elimination to come out of the federal budget altogether -- a change from the current practice under which killing $50 million for the infamous indoor rain forest in Coralville, Iowa, for example, would merely transfer that money to other accounts for appropriators to spend. The elimination of "baseline budgeting" would end the ridiculous practice of describing reductions in increased spending as spending cuts.
Although the most important element of this reform sounds legalistic, the budget resolution would have the force of law for the first time. This is a dagger aimed straight at the heart of the Cardinals. These powerful chairmen of Appropriations subcommittees could no longer take the House floor near the end of the session and cavalierly ignore earmarked spending that violates the budget resolution. They would be disobeying the law's requirements and would need a two-thirds vote in both chambers to override them.
Rep. Jim Nussle of Iowa, the House Budget Committee chairman, is a reformer at heart but is preoccupied now with the annual rococo quest for a budget resolution. Under the present budget system, a handful of apostate Republican senators may combine with nearly all Democrats to effectively block continuation of President Bush's tax cuts. Instead of controlling spending, the budget process is now subverted to force higher taxes that would permit higher spending.
Paul Ryan's bill would not be considered by the Senate this year even if it cleared the House, but he and his fellow House conservatives have long-range goals. The specter of budget reform, which makes appropriators quake at the knees, extends beyond the 2004 election. Sooner or later, the Republican leadership will have to determine whether they are willing to put a lid on federal spending to save the Bush tax cuts.