The contours of the 2006 legislative year are now clear.
Congressional Democrats unveiled yet another forgettable policy agenda and the President delivered a State of the Union Address devoid of the usual aggressive domestic policy initiatives. But House Republicans indicated they were ready to strike out in a new, perhaps bolder, direction when they selected Ohio Rep. John Boehner to succeed Tom DeLay as House Majority Leader.
What, then, should we expect in 2006?
With the bitter partisan divisions in Congress uglier than ever, the prospects for a substantive legislative year are slim. Under one scenario, a humbled and defensive Republican majority will hunker down, strap on blinders, and respond to scandals and lower public approval ratings by focusing narrowly on the annual appropriations bills and a few other items of unfinished business. The perennial effort to open up the Artic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and natural gas drilling may finally prevail, Congress may renew several important provisions of the Patriot Act, a new and troublesome $140 billion entitlement program to settle outstanding asbestos claims may quietly be enacted, and Congress could clear a stripped-down tax bill that mostly extends a few expiring provisions.
The alternative scenario, made more likely by Boehner’s rise to power, has congressional Republicans returning from their six-week recess chastened by all the bad publicity surrounding the indictment of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and determined to regain the confidence of their constituents. Only through a return to vigorous and principled lawmaking, they may reason, can they reclaim the high moral ground forfeited in recent years.
Under this scenario, Hill conservatives interpret the Abramoff mess as a symptom of a deeper problem and focus on the underlying disease — i.e., that each federal program and each earmark breeds its own “culture of corruption” by generating cloying networks of lobbyists, trade associations, corrupt union officials, grantees and other petitioners, all eager to obtain their piece of the pie.
After considerable soul-searching, these lawmakers may recall the noble aspirations that prompted them to run for office in the first place — to support the reforms required to prevail in the war on terrorism, reform the tax code and reverse Americans’ growing dependency on federal entitlements and other subsidies.
If so, what sort of legislative initiatives can we expect?
- Budget reforms and spending restraint. A rejuvenated Congress would overhaul the 1974 budget law by replacing the subtle, but crucial, ways it encourages spending with new procedural incentives to rein it in. These reforms would be accompanied by even more spending restraint than the $14 billion proposed by the president and would reach into and slash the budgets of even more programs than the 140 Bush cited in his State of the Union speech.
- A market-oriented approach to make health insurance portable and affordable. Congress is replete with new and promising proposals that would harness market forces to give Americans more choices and control over the health insurance they purchase, as well as tax credits to help individuals afford this coverage. A rejuvenated Congress would assemble the best of these proposals into an attractive legislative package and dare their liberal opponents to block it.
- Real tax reforms. The projected explosion in the number of taxpayers who will be required to pay the Alternative Minimum Tax, from 3.8 million to 21.6 million, offers pro-growth advocates an ideal opportunity to link a one-year extension of the current level of the AMT (presumably a “must have” for many liberal senators from “blue” states) to their dream of making the repeal of the death tax and the 15 percent top rates for capital gains and dividends permanent.
- A meaningful oversight agenda. A rejuvenated Congress would rediscover one of its most important roles in our divided government — scrutinizing the performance of the Executive Branch agencies and the programs they oversee. United Republican control of both Congress and the White House is no excuse for abdicating this responsibility.
Boehner’s elevation comes at what is undoubtedly the most perilous time for House Republicans since they regained the majority in 1994. They, and their Senate colleagues, would do well to remember that the high points of Republican governance — including the early Reagan years as well as the first years of the Gingrich/Armey revolution — coincided with the high point of reform fervor.