The GOP's Budget Problem

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert returned to Illinois this week from Easter recess travels in India and Vietnam, still pondering the question he took on his globe girdling. What would he do about his close colleague and usual ally, Rep. Jerry Lewis?

During the pre-Easter Republican meltdown on Capitol Hill, when the party’s leadership in both the Senate and House was repudiated on several issues, nothing was more embarrassing than the House failure to pass a budget bill. Everything was in place to pass budget reforms. But Lewis, the powerful chairman of the Appropriations Committee, pulled the plug. He blocked support for the rule needed to debate the budget because the bill’s effort to control the earmarking epidemic would have undercut influence of the appropriators.

Hastert could seek some sanction against Lewis. But the only meaningful sanction would be ousting him as chairman, and that will not happen. So, a new effort will be made to pass the budget when Congress reconvenes next week, and that means either getting the Appropriations chairman back in line or overriding him. Control of the budget is necessary for Republicans to restore credibility, as signaled by the appointment of the highly regarded Rob Portman as budget director. Indeed, passing a budget will be Portman’s first task.

On April 6, before the House recessed, a budget containing spending reforms was agreed to by the new majority leader, John Boehner, and Rep. Mike Pence, head of the conservative Republican Study Committee. What’s more, Rep. Mike Castle, leader of the House moderates, was on board. It was then that Lewis torpedoed the budget by instructing his committee members to oppose it.

The budget reforms that Lewis jettisoned constituted a remarkable consensus among leaders, conservatives and moderates hammered out during seven hard weeks of negotiations. Lewis chose not to attend those sessions, but sent a junior member of his committee — Rep. Michael K. Simpson of Idaho — as an observer. No word of criticism by the appropriators was expressed until Lewis came to a leadership meeting on April 6, when the budget was on the floor. He then revealed that he had just e-mailed the 36 other Republican appropriators telling them to vote against the budget rule.

Lewis was unapologetic in opposing what he called the "whims of a few" who incorporated badly needed reforms in the budget. "I cannot and will not support a resolution that greatly diminishes Congress’s ability to respond to national disasters," he proclaimed. Put in plain language, that means Lewis was not going to tolerate any diminution of the appropriators’ ability to translate Defense and Homeland Security emergency spending into any additional spending they desire.

The budget reformers see Lewis, a crafty career legislator, putting up a national security smokescreen. They believe the real issue is the budget resolution’s tough reform, which would require earmarks that suddenly appear at the end of the congressional process to be brought to the floor. This is aimed at what the lawmakers call "airborne earmarks," such as funding for the notorious indoor rainforest in Iowa.

Jerry Lewis always has been a team player since I first met him in 1969 as a 34-year-old moderate Republican assemblyman in California. But he was named to the House Appropriations Committee as a second-term congressman in 1981, and the appropriators consider themselves a breed apart who put loyalty to the committee over loyalty to the party.

Lewis on March 15 acted as an appropriator in opposing President Bush’s attempted revival of the line-item veto, a proposal embraced by the group negotiating the budget reforms. But the solidarity of the appropriators may be breaking. Leadership sources say five or six Republican members of the committee are unhappy about Lewis’s apostasy though they are not ready to come forward publicly.

In keeping with normal congressional practice, the leadership’s next step would be to seek compromises with Lewis that dilute the reforms. But maybe not this time. Pence says the conservatives have compromised enough. Boehner is determined to rid Congress of its earmark addiction. They will be supported in the administration by Portman. The test comes next week.