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House Republicans prefer bite-sized bills

Hewing to their 'less is more' philosophy, GOP leaders shun sweeping policy bills in favor of small slices of legislation that are easier to digest.

March 26, 2011|By Kathleen Hennessey, Washington Bureau
  • "The days of big, comprehensive bills, I think, should be over," says House Speaker John Boehner, shown above with President Obama after a St. Patrick's Day luncheon at the Capitol.
"The days of big, comprehensive bills, I think, should be over,"… (Olivier Douliery, Abaca…)

Reporting from Washington — Republicans in Washington are thinking small — and are proud of it.

As they wield their power in the House, GOP leaders are eschewing big packages of policy in favor of tiny slices and focusing on narrow legislative targets.

These days, bills are lauded by Republicans frequently for their scant pages and paucity of words. While the leadership still tackles big concepts in public debates, its approach to lawmaking is far more incremental. After weeks of fighting over a budget for the next six months, for example, Congress earlier this month approved a bill that covered federal expenses — for three weeks.

The reason: a mix of ideology and political reality. The approach reflects the conservative, "less is more" philosophy about government, as well as a backlash against what Republicans portray as the overreach of the Democrats' healthcare and financial overhaul bills in the last Congress.

The current political climate may leave few alternatives. With Democrats in control in the Senate, there's little chance that both chambers will agree on too much of anything — much less any sweeping piece of policy.

"You know, the days of big, comprehensive bills, I think, should be over, and I would rather deal with this in what I'll call bite-sized chunks," House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said recently while discussing his party's approach to energy policy. "I think it's a more logical and thoughtful way to deal with these issues."

That means no massive energy bill will be debated, modified to draw bipartisan support and passed as a whole. Instead, House Republicans intend to advance a series of small bills pursuing narrower goals such as promoting nuclear power, opening up more domestic oil and gas exploration and blocking environmental regulation. Similarly, there is unlikely to be a single jobs bill or one healthcare package proposed to replace the current law, which Republicans would like to repeal.

This was one of Boehner's early promises when he took the helm in the House this year. In their "Pledge to America," House leaders promised to advance bills "one issue at a time," ending the practice of bundling bills into large packages where details and pet issues can get buried. Offering "clean" bills — legislation with a single purpose — has become a point of pride.

There's risk and potential reward in this strategy. Republicans may earn praise for transparency and heeding calls for a more straightforward governing process. But they also leave themselves open to criticism that they are dodging the most challenging issues of the day.

Legislation balloons for a reason, said Sarah Binder, a professor of political science at George Washington University and a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"The complexity of the issues that come to Congress' plate, they may in fact require complex solutions," Binder said, adding that bills often grow to accommodate enough elements to win over a bipartisan coalition necessary for passage.

"Politically, there's a constituency of those who want to better understand what Congress is doing," Binder said. "But when it runs up against the fact that getting anything done requires compromise, it's hard to see all that much coming from this.… They could look like they haven't acted at all."

The foil in this is the Democrats' healthcare law, a sweeping change of policy that topped out at more than 2,000 pages. (It is sometimes quoted as 3,000 by Republicans eager to round up.) Its physical size has become a talking point in itself. Republicans often boasted that their bill to repeal the law was just three pages. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) one-upped that with his own 40-word repeal bill.

"We understand that the best ideas don't always come from Washington, and they rarely come in a massive 2,900-page bill," Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said last week as he used the one-year anniversary of the healthcare bill's passage to promise a new set of "sensible legislative solutions in the coming months."

When these solutions will be forthcoming is unclear; none has made it to a vote on the House floor.

Items that have made it to a vote reflect the new bite-sized approach — or even nibble-sized. Almost weekly, House Republicans offer up a budget-cutting bill chosen by the public via a text-message voting system on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's website. The "You Cut" bills have chipped away at spending by eliminating public financing for presidential campaigns, saving $617 million over five years, and by curbing the printing of government documents, a tab of less than $7 million a year. Earlier this month, the House voted to defund National Public Radio in a bill that had no immediate effect on federal spending.

Still, Republicans defended it as progress, however small, toward reducing the deficit.

"This is a step in the process," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, (R-Tenn.). "This is something we can do."

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