Published July 25, 2017 | By Angelo Codevilla
The Republican congressional leadership’s failure to repeal Obamacare has led to suggestions that, perhaps, they should have approached their task through “Regular Order.”
Since Congress has not operated under “Regular Order” at all since 2006, . . . many may be excused for not knowing what these procedures are. Far from being arcane ephemera, they are the indispensable catalyst that makes American government responsible to the people.
Casting aside “Regular Order” was essential to the rise of the unaccountable administrative state and the near-sovereignty of party leaders, lobbyists, and bureaucrats.
Herewith, a summary of what “Regular Order” means, what purpose it once served, why and how it was shunned, and of what has ensued. . .
Bills introduced in House or Senate would be sent to the relevant committee, and thence to the proper sub-committee. The ones thought worthy would be the subject of public hearings.
The committees’ partisan majorities and minorities would try to stage manage the hearings to make the best case for the outcomes they desired on each point. Then, each subcommittee’s public “mark up” of its portion of the bill would reflect the members’ votes and compromises on each item.
Once the several subcommittee products had made their way to the full committee, the same process would repeat. Votes on contested items, and on the whole bill, would end the full committee’s “mark up” and send the bill to be scheduled for action on the House or Senate floor.
Just to get to this point, every element of every bill had to be exposed to public scrutiny. Senators or congressmen on the committees offered amendments and had to vote on the record for each part of the bill. On the House floor, amendments would be limited. But in the Senate, there could be, and often were, “amendments by way of substitution.”
By the time the “yeas and nays” were tallied on the final bill, the final product would be the result of countless compromises “on the record.”
Here in 2017, it is useful to recall that this process used to apply to every government activity that required a dollar from the U.S. treasury, each and every year. For the past 11 years, however, all the money drawn from the treasury has come from single “Continuing Resolutions” (CRs) or “Omnibus” bills, drafted in secret by “leadership” staffers, executive branch officials, and lobbyists, on which there have been no hearings, which few members have ever read, and on which few if any amendments have been allowed.
These “Cromnibuses,” served up as the government runs out of spending authority, end up being passed by the majority party’s near unanimity.
While this is consistent with the Constitution’s words, it wholly reverses their intent. Individual congressmen and senators are cut out of the legislative process. The voters can no longer hold each of them accountable.
When Republican leaders make common cause with the Democrat Party against Republicans who won’t go along, whom they accuse of “shutting down the government,” they create a bipartisan ruling Uniparty.
Senators and congressmen abandoned Regular Order because it hinders their craving for power and flight from responsibility.
They prefer exercising influence and making compromises privately. Regular Order had forced them to be responsible to the voters. They prefer to be safe, indistinguishable, comfortable among the courtiers.
“Continuing Resolutions” were supposed to just “keep thing going next year as in the previous year,” thus avoiding all contentious issues. But it was never that simple: from the beginning, these CRs always had riders. The more influence you had, the more you could slip into the CR.
This proved to be catnip for politicians.
Party leaders grasped the more that legislation was done by Continuing Resolution, the more influence they would have on their members. Presidents—and above all their bureaucrats—saw that direct, private contact with the CR drafters was a far more effective means of getting their way than through “Regular Order.”
Understanding the Republican leadership’s addiction to government without Regular Order is all too easy. We have so much to do. We have tools to do it expeditiously. Why not use them? This, the standard procedural argument for Progressivism, is as valid today as it was when Woodrow Wilson made it in the 1880s.
Merely holding the line against the establishment’s continuously mounting claims on the rest of America will require re-involving the American people in their own business. That means restoring Congress as the American people’s primary representative institution.
Making Congress work according to Regular Order, and only through Regular Order with no more Continuing Resolutions, is a prerequisite.
Angelo Codevilla is Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Boston University.