Eight Republican senators, including Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and John McCain, R-Ariz., put their colleagues on notice with a letter Thursday announcing their intent to block any legislation that doesn't meet certain criteria, including a requirement that all new spending must be offset with cuts to lower priority spending.
"As stewards of our nation's finances, we must ensure our good intentions today are not paid for at the expense of future generations," said the letter, which was sent to all senators. "This means no longer spending money we do not have to pay for programs we do not need."
The letter said the aim was to restore a certain level of accountability: "We believe the Senate should apply these and other commonsense practices to restore fiscal responsibility and increase accountability and transparency to the legislative process," the letter continued. "And while we expect all of these standards to be met for each bill the Senate considers, this is not an exhausted list of all the reasons we may individually object to a particular bill or unanimous consent request."
Other criteria include a requirement that government programs must be periodically reviewed and renewed. To that end, the letter calls for any legislation establishing or continuing an agency, office, or program must also include a "sunset" date at which point Congress must decide whether to update or extend the life of the program.
The senators also called for the cost and text of bills to be available for at least three days prior to passage and that all bills be required to have a clear and obvious purpose connected to one of the enumerated powers of Congress contained in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, and must not infringe upon any of the rights guaranteed to the people.
The latter criterion appears aimed at legislation like the health care overhaul law, which has been challenged in the courts by Republican state attorneys general. Republicans point to the law-which in 2014 will require that individuals purchase health insurance-as the paradigmatic example of unconstitutional government overreach.
"I'm proud to stand with my fellow conservative Senate colleagues to require thorough review of bills to prevent secret passage of wasteful spending and unconstitutional legislation," Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said in a release. "Our nation is on the edge of bankruptcy, and we simply cannot afford more borrowing from foreign nations to spend on programs we don't need."
The senators also said, in order to reduce redundancy, any bill creating a program that replicates a current government mission must consolidate overlapping activities or eliminate the existing programs.
The criterion comes after the Government Accountability Office released a report this week-required by an amendment included by Coburn in legislation that passed last year that raised the debt ceiling-that lists 33 areas where federal programs overlap, creating potential for savings through consolidation or elimination of duplicative programs.
"This week's GAO report exposing widespread duplication in the federal government shows why Congress needs to eliminate programs that don't work instead of creating new programs we don't need, and can't afford," Coburn said in a release.
For example, the report cites five separate arms-control and nonproliferation bureaus, including two in the State Department, and 18 separate domestic food assistance programs.
It is not clear that many such "duplicative" programs fully overlap. Nor does the report say that overlapping means they cannot provide cumulative benefits. But GAO contends that the duplication creates an opportunity for quick savings.
"By making clear these expectations now, it is our hope we can work together earlier in the legislative process to resolve differences that could otherwise delay or stop passage of your legislative priorities," the letter said.