THE BLOG
12/16/2010 11:10 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Go Home: Incoming Leader of the 112th Congress Issues Odd Marching Order

The incoming leadership and committee chairmen of the U.S. House of Representatives have been boasting about their ambitious, time-consuming plans to conduct intensive oversight and ferret out waste, fraud and abuse throughout the federal government. Yet the new House Majority Leader, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), recently unveiled his calendar for the first session of the next Congress -- one that has the House in session for fewer days than during any first session in the past decade. Something has to give, but from recent statements by the newly elected leadership, it is not at all clear what that will be.

The man expected to be speaker during the 112th Congress, John Boehner (R-OH), told a press conference hours after his party was swept into the majority on election day, "When it comes to the financial services bill... it is going to require a significant amount of oversight so not only will the Congress understand but the American people understand just what this bill will do to our financial services industry." That was only one of countless statements, press releases, and bulletins over the past six weeks detailing the arduous work load anticipated by the soon-to-be leaders of the House of Representatives in the new 112th Congress.

More recently, the incoming Government Reform Committee Chair Darryl Issa (R-CA) carried the oversight theme to the entire federal budget. He told a meeting of federal inspectors general in Philadelphia:

Government will need to go on a diet...The vast majority of $1.4 trillion (in deficit reduction) will have to come out of government spending... Our committee is going to focus on places where money can be saved, where we can literally close agencies or subagencies or programs. And we are going to work mostly on that.

The incoming Majority Whip, Congressman Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) promised that this intensive exercise would extend far beyond the Government Reform Committee. "The whole Appropriations Committee is going to change from a spending committee to an efficiency committee, where it's finding and eliminating waste."

Earlier this year Boehner outlined a proposal that would not only commit the Appropriations Committee to the task of identifying and rooting out wasteful programs, but the entire membership of the House of Representatives, too. In a jaw-dropping proposal to dramatically expand the workload of the full House by splitting the current 12 individual appropriation bills into separate pieces, Boehner said:

Let's do away with the concept of "comprehensive" spending bills. Let's break them up, to encourage scrutiny, and make spending cuts easier. Rather than pairing agencies and departments together, let them come to the House floor individually, to be judged on their own merit.

The Boehner plan would split one appropriations bill, the Labor-Health and Human Service-Education and Related Agencies bill, into at least three and perhaps four or more separate pieces of legislation -- each requiring floor action for the adoption of a rule as well as several procedural votes simply to permit their consideration. The same would be true of the Commerce, Justice, and Science Bill, and the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Bill and so on. One could see the number of spending bills coming before the House jump from 12 to 25 or 30 or perhaps even more.

So it was a real surprise last week when the incoming House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, (R-VA), who will set the floor calendar for the 112th Congress, announced the schedule for the first session of the next Congress. How is the new crowd going to straighten out the mess in Washington that they campaigned so vigorously against? The answer is they are going to go home. That is right; Cantor says he is going to create "certainty" for "members, family, staff, and constituents." Cantor's view of "certainty" evidently means assurance that they will be home a lot more -- and doing oversight and tracking down waste, fraud and abuse a lot less.

Cantor, in a letter to his colleagues, argues that while the House will reduce the number of weeks it is meeting by 11 percent, it will still be meeting 123 days, which he claims "is consistent with first session in years past." In fact, the House has met far more than 123 days during every first session for the past decade. The first session of the current Congress met 159 days, two years earlier the House met in the first session of the 110th Congress 164 days. In the five first sessions since the turn of the century, the House has averaged 148 days of session or 20 percent more, and during the last two Congresses the first sessions had 30 percent more workdays than Cantor is asking from the House.

Having worked on the Hill for three decades, I know that it is a tougher life for families than most people realize. But I didn't hear any discussion during the election about making the world better for congressional spouses -- and what I did hear discussed simply cannot be accomplished with the schedule proposed by the incoming floor leader.

That schedule looks all the more ridiculous if you consider the timeline Congress is expected to meet in making decisions on spending. The president's proposed budget arrives at the capitol in February. Hearings are held and a budget resolution is produced in March. That resolution is conferenced with the Senate and passed in final form in April. Appropriation bills are then drafted in May and start moving through the House in June. It is critical that all or nearly all of those bills clear the house in June so that the Senate can act on them in July and conferences can be completed before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

For the House the key to getting its work done for the year is the month of June, and Cantor has the House on vacation for 11 of the 22 weekdays in that month with five of the 11 days they are in session limited to partial workdays. There are no votes and therefore little or no floor activity before 6:30 on two of the 11 days and no votes after 3:00 on an additional three days. In addition, Cantor has pledged to adjourn the house each evening at 7:00 and not allow floor votes before 1:00 in the afternoon.

It would be nice if the Congress could launch a real war on wasteful spending, do more intensive oversight of government regulatory agencies, spend more time in their districts, and have every evening at home with their family. It would also be nice if we could bring peace to Afghanistan and Iraq without forcing hundreds of thousands of troops to be away from their families for a year at a time. Unfortunately, we don't live in that kind of world. The one "certainty" that the incoming floor leader's calendar offers is that we will have less oversight and less effort at finding waste. In the end, cuts will be made in necessary and useful investments rather than in poorly designed and administered government activities because the Congress will have not exerted the effort to know which is which. If the new Congress wants to deliver on the promises they made only a few months ago, they will reject this schedule.

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

This article was first posted on AmericanProgress.org.