The House GOP's New War on Incompetence

The Republicans want to overhaul scandal-plagued federal agencies in 2015, the majority leader says.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Chris Carlson/AP)

House Republicans haven't officially locked down their majority for next year, but they're already sketching out a legislative agenda for when they do.

In a memo to lawmakers on Wednesday, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said the party would target the federal bureaucracy with an eye toward restoring "competence" across a range of scandal-plagued departments and agencies. He cited the well-documented problems at the Veterans Administration, the Secret Service, the IRS, last year's launch of the federal health insurance exchanges, and the more recent response to Ebola, along with several other missteps that haven't garnered as much attention.

"Every week seems to bring a new revelation of government agencies failing to accomplish their core functions," McCarthy wrote.

Republicans are widely expected to expand their hold on the House in November, and they seem likely to take the Senate as well. The agenda McCarthy laid out, however, is fairly modest in scope, and probably not exhaustive; there are no new promises to repeal Obamacare, gut the EPA, or overhaul entitlement programs. Those may still be on the way, particularly if Republicans succeed in winning control of the Senate.

Yet McCarthy's plan to focus on competency dovetails with the party's campaign-trail arguments that the Obama administration lacks basic management skills. It also comports with the GOP's broader goal of reducing the size of the federal bureaucracy.

"Inefficient, ineffective, and incompetent federal agencies along with failed government policies have real world consequences," McCarthy wrote.

"They hurt economic growth and job creation. Restoring economic growth and job creation will be the central policy goal of the next Congress and restoring competence in government will be part of that effort. The inability of the government to accomplish its most basic tasks has eroded the public’s trust in government, as polls have repeatedly shown. Worse, throughout the country there is an emerging sense of resignation that our great country is on the decline. We must work to end this cycle of failings and make government functional again."

Fixing the nuts and bolts of government isn't sexy, but it does have the potential to gain bipartisan support. The test for McCarthy and Speaker John Boehner will be whether the Republican agenda leans more toward "reform," which could gain Democratic votes, or toward "cuts," which probably will not. McCarthy's memo was light on specifics, mentioning only a series of bills the House has previously passed along with an idea to cut down on the thousands of annual reports that agencies must file according to congressional statutes.

For House Republicans, a focus on "competency" is a political safe harbor: It's straightforward and hard to oppose. But dozens of conservatives are already anxious for the party to adopt a more ambitious agenda in coordination with a GOP majority in the Senate, which the polls show is increasingly likely. They're going to want to cut a lot more than some agency reports.