Last week, a member of Congress exercised his right to have a vote. Based on the media’s reaction, you would have thought D.C. was burning down.
But if you care about fiscal responsibility, believe members of Congress should vote on billion-dollar bills before they pass, or even think that reading and debating legislation is a useful exercise, meet your new hero: freshman U.S. Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX).
After sending members of the House home for a weeklong vacation last Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) brought a $19 billion disaster relief bill to the floor, expecting it to pass easily with no one in the chamber.
This is, after all, how much of our spending legislation passes now—late at night, up against a holiday, or by presuming the consent of members who have already gone home.
What she wasn’t counting on, however, was that one member wanted to actually read the bill—the final text of which had only come over from the Senate hours earlier. Not only that, but, horror of horrors, he wanted to debate and vote on it.
Roy objected to passing the bill by unanimous consent, asserting his right to request that the House of Representatives debate and vote on the measure with all members present.
In practical terms, he delayed passage of the bill by a week. But listening to the pundits and the partisans, you’d think he was personally raising another hurricane from the sea.
But Roy’s policy and procedural objections have significant and substantive merit.
As Roy pointed out, the $19 billion bill exists outside of the spending caps that Congress sets for itself. It does so against a backdrop of a $22 trillion federal debt—the highest our debt has ever been. That’s not to say that spending this particular $19 billion isn’t necessary—maybe it is, and the proponents of the legislation should make their case for it. But the urgency of this spending does not mask its impact on the debt.
In objecting to its passage on those grounds, Roy was simply embodying the argument long made by economist Thomas Sowell: There are no solutions, only trade-offs. Apologies to the quantitative easers, but U.S. wealth is a finite resource. We can agree to spend $19 billion. But what other resources are we diminishing in exchange?
Those who would have us defer to the tyranny of the urgent also obscure another point: the Federal Emergency Management Agency already has around $30 billion in unobligated funds available to be spent on disasters just like this. Why aren’t we using funds that we already have for this purpose?
Lest you think Roy is the only one raising this point, when a version of this bill came before the House Rules Committee in early May, U.S. Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) offered an amendment that would have paid for this bill using the money FEMA already has. Predictably, Democrats did not make it in order.
But there is more than just spending worth debating in this bill. There’s also what we’re spending it on.
The legislation is supposed to address disaster relief for Americans affected by agricultural disasters and hurricanes. Yet the bill also contains $55 million for the Head Start program, $1 million for worker training programs, extends the insolvent National Flood Insurance Program without making any reforms for the 11th time, and modifies the federally subsidized crop insurance program to cover the production of industrial hemp. About $900 million is provided for Puerto Rico, even though the territory is already on track to receive up to $91 billion once the 2017 hurricane response cycle is through.
We can argue about the necessity and legitimacy of all these provisions (though I struggle to identify what they are), but we should at least agree that they are, at a minimum, worthy of debate and public justification.
But this is how the swamp operates. More and more, bills are written behind closed doors by just a handful of members, just as this bill was written by a handful of senators whose states would benefit from it, before being dumped on the larger membership, who is then told to “pass it, or else.”
In standing up to the D.C. establishment, Rep. Chip Roy has joined the ranks of Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee, plus former Sen. Jim DeMint and others who the swamp loves to hate for doing the jobs they were elected to do.
This week, that small club got a new member. Conservatives everywhere should be applauding.
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