Ray LaHood, the Illinoisan who now serves as President Barack Obama’s transportation secretary, was a Republican congressman in his former life. He was a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, where he was an advocate of pork projects.
In 2008, LaHood unwittingly explained everything that was wrong with the old House GOP majority. He told a newspaper in his hometown of Peoria that the reason he “went to the Appropriations Committee, the reason other people go on the Appropriations Committee, is they know that it puts them in a position to know where the money is at, to know the people who are doling the money out and to be in the room when the money is being doled out.”
That is the way Republicans ran the House when they held congressional majorities under President George W. Bush. Outside of a few unruly conservatives, the House rank-and-file was perfectly willing to watch government expenditures rise year after year. Under their stewardship, federal outlays increased from $1.9 trillion to $2.7 trillion.
We are now in the Obama era and spending $3.7 trillion this year. The last election cycle showed us how such huge budgets can serve as shock therapy for the public.
The signs are there that times have changed since LaHood’s day. The coming weeks will tell us for sure if those signs are correct. The Republican-led House will soon consider what is known as a “continuing resolution,” a bill to keep the government running after the current spending bill expires early next month.
House Republican leaders have set forth their proposal for cuts — $74 billion below Obama’s request for the rest of this year. This has caused disappointment among some conservatives, who were hoping for at least $100 billion in cuts.
But House GOP leaders are quietly putting out word that they will do nothing to discourage the rank-and-file from adding deeper cuts through the amendment process. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., the scourge of appropriators, told me he would have preferred that “deeper cuts had been in the base bill,” but this shift in culture is still very significant.
In the old GOP House majority, rank-and-file efforts to cut spending were strongly discouraged and sometimes treated by Republican leaders as bad behavior. Republican members who voted for the old across-the-board spending cuts proposed frequently by former Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., could expect retaliation. Appropriators’ prerogatives commanded such great respect that the federal budget grew unchecked.
This time, a leadership source described to me what promises to be a Republican version of “Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom.” He expressed optimism that the final bill the House produces will indeed cut spending by $100 billion below Obama’s request, thanks to efforts by individual members on the House floor.
Elections matter. In 2010, 58 percent of voters said they believe the federal government is doing too much. Deficit reduction was the “highest priority” of 40 percent, according to the exit polling.
And this has changed the political calculus, even in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Democrats will be defending 23 Senate seats in 2012, and as many as five or six of their incumbents are vulnerable enough that they could use some spending-cut credibility.
By March 4, we will know just how badly they are feeling the political pressure.
David Freddoso is The Washington Examiner’s online opinion editor.