As a new Congress reflecting the will of the voters as of November finally assumes office this week, with Republicans holding a majority in the House and more effective power in the Senate, we can expect both symbolic gestures and a few substantive moves in the direction of less-intrusive government. Whether legislators will move much beyond symbolism may not be known for several months.
Republican symbolism begins with a relatively low-key induction – compared with the more grandiose changing of the guard with Nancy Pelosi in 2006 and Newt Gingrich in 1994 – of Ohio Rep. John Boehner as speaker of the House. Rep. Boehner has not sought the media spotlight since November and vows to keep the focus on party and principle rather than himself.
The incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Fred Upton of Michigan, has also promised a vote before the State of the Union message, set for Jan. 25, to repeal Obamacare, the expansion of the government role in health care passed last year. While a majority-Republican House might pass repeal, and could well bring along a few Democrats for the ride, this would be almost entirely symbolic. A Democratic-majority Senate would not approve it, and even if it did, President Barack Obama would veto it.
On opening day, Thursday, the full U.S. Constitution will be read aloud on the House floor – a symbolic gesture unless it induces real understanding of the importance of enumerated (not unlimited) powers the Constitution grants the government. A vote to cut congressional office spending by 5 percent is also largely symbolic. The $25 million such a cut is expected to save may seem like a lot to some, but in the context of overall federal spending it is a pittance.
Potentially less purely symbolic are Republican promises to cut about $100 billion in a planned $477 billion in domestic discretionary spending. The biggest proposed items are $12 billion of the president's "stimulus" bill that hasn't been spent yet, much of it for high-speed rail, and cuts in foreign aid and food stamps. House Republicans could also use threats of spending cuts to thwart regulatory initiatives.
The best gauge of whether Republicans are serious on spending will be whether they are willing to entertain cuts in the nation's military budget and overseas commitments as well as domestic spending. Color us doubtful.
Throw in investigations of past Obama decisions and a possible showdown in March on the federal debt limit, and it could be an eventful congressional session. Whether it will lead to smaller government is another question.
The Orange County Register