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House Republicans’ top priority, H.R. 1, still an empty shell

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(Bloomberg) — The U.S. House of Representatives is six weeks into its new session without saying which legislative priority will become H.R. 1.

The symbolic prized designation in past sessions has gone to proposals including the No Child Left Behind Act, the Sept. 11 Commission proposals and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

See also: H.R. 1 Frees FSAs And HRAs From 1099 Rules.

This year, Republicans who control the House left the number vacant as of Friday, as Congress begins a week-long Presidents’ Day break.

Among thousands of bills to be introduced over the next two years, will H.R. 1 be set aside again for a hoped-for revamp of the U.S. tax code? Tax changes had that designation in 2013, though it was nothing more than an empty vessel until the waning days of 2014. Another possibility is a Republican alternative to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), or a jobs initiative.

“We have not announced that at this point,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican.

Asked whether there was a lack of ideas or something in the works, Steel insisted, “the latter,” while declining to say more.

Rank-and-file Republicans say they haven’t been let in on the secret either.

“I have no idea. Wished I knew,” said Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina.

Democrats see the lack of an announced choice by Republicans as having more significance.

“I think they are confused about what their priorities are,” said Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee.

Little done

Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, said a still-vacant H.R. 1 is emblematic of a Congress that has gotten little done in its first six weeks.

“All we’ve seen from House Republicans is cut and paste, cut and paste,” Hammill said. “No jobs agenda, no new ideas. Just rehashed message bills that will never become law.”

Even with Republican control of both the House and Senate for the first time in eight years, just two public bills this session have become law. One is a terrorism-risk insurance measure. The other is a veterans’ suicide-prevention bill.

The House this week cleared S.1, the Senate version of a measure approving the Keystone XL Pipeline — the House bill is H.R. 3. President Barack Obama has said he’ll veto it.

In the past, H.R. 1 has been the home for notable or even grand initiatives, many designated for top billing within the first month of a new session.


Those include the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) (designated on Jan. 26); the Implementing the Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2009 (Jan. 5); the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (Jan. 5); the Water Quality Act of 1987 (Jan.6); and the Civil Rights and Women’s Equity in Employment Act of 1991 (Jan.3).

Another prominent H.R. 1 was the 2001 No Child Left Behind education law, identified on March 22.

Still, not all prominent holders of the designation were announced so early. The Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003 was introduced as H.R. 1 in June.

As the majority party, Republicans are allotted H.R. numbers 1 through 10 for their priorities.

They have already assigned four of those top slots this session. In addition to H.R 3, the Keystone Pipeline measure, H.R. 5 is an education bill soon to be advanced.

H.R 7 is the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act passed Jan. 22, and H.R. 9 is reserved for a bill to amend a 2011 patent law.

Early announcement

The mystery about H.R. 1 is in contrast to the early announcement by Boehner and Republicans at the start of the last session, in January 2013, that they would give a tax revamp plan the highest-priority designation.

That decision turned out to be a bit of an embarrassment, as the fanfare about revamping the U.S. tax code lapsed into inaction.

H.R. 1 remained an empty shell until the session’s final days in December 2014. Language plugged into H.R. 1 on Dec. 10 by then-Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan had no co-sponsors and no chance of advancing.

H.R. 1 has only occasionally sat fallow through an entire session, as it did in 2005 under former Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois.

Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said one way to view the lack of an announcement by Republicans “is that differences within the GOP conference are complicating agreement on a key, must-pass priority.”

“It’s certainly the case that no single legislative priority drove the GOP majority’s campaigns in 2014,” said Binder, also a political science professor at George Washington University. “The midterms were far more a referendum on Obama’s agenda than an endorsement of GOP policy plans. That might help account for the slow start out of the legislative gates.”

—With assistance from Richard Rubin in Washington.


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