Two House members launched a drive Wednesday to make an end-run around the Democratic leadership and give rank-and-file lawmakers a chance to vote on wholesale budget cuts from "A to Z."
The A to Z proposal, which gets its name from its chief sponsors--second-term Reps. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.) and Bill Zeliff (R-N.H.)--would allow members to bypass House committees and take their proposed budget cuts, including such untouchables as Social Security and Medicare, directly to the House floor.
Advocates said that the idea is to keep the leadership from blocking proposed cuts either by bottling them up in hostile committees or by using the rules to prevent them from reaching a floor vote. Instead, A to Z backers want a 56-hour floor debate created specifically to consider any suggested budget reductions.
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and his lieutenants have begun a crash campaign to torpedo the plan, arguing that it would unleash a legislative free-for-all without adequate hearings or even notice on what programs would be targeted for reduction or elimination. Foley said that the plan may be a legislative nightmare.
The A to Z proposal is "a very poor way to legislate," Foley told reporters recently. "It denies the opportunity for members to have thoughtful consideration and review of legislation prior to votes. . . . It could lead to quick and preemptory votes on very large issues, including entire bills."
Sponsors of the process, however, claim that it would offer every member of the House a chance to propose cuts in any part of the federal budget. "The A to Z plan gives us the opportunity to set aside power politics" and deliver "a body blow to big government spending," Zeliff said.
To succeed, A to Z advocates must get a majority of the House to sign a "discharge petition" that would bypass the leadership-dominated Rules Committee. The little-used mechanism permits a House majority to insist on bringing legislation to the floor over opposition of the leadership.
So far, 230 members have agreed to co-sponsor the A to Z proposal, or 13 more than the current majority of 217. The House has 435 members but there are two vacancies. All but two of the 176 Republicans have co-sponsored the measure, along with 56 Democrats.
But the sponsors' problem now is to get them to follow up by signing the petition--an act of direct defiance of the leadership.
Co-sponsor Andrews said that it will not be an easy task in view of opposition from the Speaker and possibly from some Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee who fear retaliation from the Democratic majority on the panel if they endorse the A to Z approach.
"Our guess is that in the next few days we'll get 150 signatures," Andrews said. "The next 30 days are going to be crucial."
He said that he and Zeliff would be appearing on radio talk shows to drum up support for their proposal. "If this becomes a grass-roots, in-your-district, in-your-face issue, we'll get the signatures."
For his part, Foley is meeting with Democrats to offer them a chance to bring up budget-cutting bills that they think cannot get a fair hearing in the House. He noted that any member can offer amendments to reduce spending when the House considers its 13 annual appropriation bills, which account for about one-third of all federal outlays, so long as the proposals are germane to the legislation being debated. Those amendments would be subject to review by committees.
"A to Z simply throws away the committee system," Foley said.
The Speaker said that the procedure also could force House members to vote in the dark, even without a word of debate on many proposed amendments, since the ground rules would limit debate to 56 hours, with a maximum of one hour on each amendment.
"I think this is the most poorly thought out proposal for the consideration of public policy that I have seen in many years, and maybe the worst one ever in terms of consideration by the House," Foley added.
Despite the Speaker's objections, Democratic aides voiced concern that the A to Z plan had a simplistic appeal that might be hard to resist in an election year.
"A to Z is untraditional," acknowledged Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.), a supporter of the plan. "But we have all seen where traditional methods take us: straight into debt."