Lawmakers heralded the sweeping spending bill signed into law last week as a return to regular order, but politicking and the short election-year calendar have many doubtful that they can actually resume regular lawmaking at all.
Writing and passing the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill built trust among bipartisan House and Senate appropriators, who fashion themselves the last vestige of old-school, institutional policymaking. Both sides believe members of the other party want to pass and conference all 12 spending bills by the September deadline.
“We’ve got 12 bills. Those are going to be hard,” House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., said. “But ... having amendments, debating your priorities, that’s good for the institution, that’s good for Congress. We need to reclaim the power of the purse.”
The budget deal Ryan negotiated with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., last year aids this process, starting both sides off with a common number of $1.014 trillion (not counting overseas contingency operations) for fiscal 2015 — $2 billion more than this year. What remains untested is whether congressional leaders and the rank and file are willing to let the process bear out.
The dilemma lies in the very openness regular order affords. House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said he wants to see all 12 bills come to the floor under an open rule, meaning any lawmaker can offer amendments.
“We’ll take them through the regular process, you know, like a car wash, and the amendments will be fought out in subcommittee, then full committee then conference,” he said.
The problem with a car wash is while the vehicle might emerge sparkling clean, the grime always seems to rub off on someone nearby. In the case of spending bills, leaders may be wary of hundreds of politically charged amendments on everything from abortion to immigration to Obamacare — forcing swing-district members into tough votes while weighing bills down with poison-pill riders that cost bipartisan support.
Appropriators are bombarded with these riders, which they see as overtly political and often duplicative and come from members trying to look tough back home, particularly in election years.
“It’s maddening,” said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., an appropriator and member of the GOP whip team. “I believe in regular order, but I believe in sane regular order where members aren’t just given the ability to grandstand for purely political purposes.”
It's particularly maddening for appropriators when members secure amendments but vote against the underlying bill. Rooney said the whip team is already discussing ways to not only dissuade members from bringing those amendments, but to make it known on the floor who is offering amendments in good faith and who, as he put it, is “just grandstanding for their Facebook page.”
“We’re much more cognizant of that as we move forward and I am going to be a stickler about that as we move forward too because that drives me crazy,” he said. But, he added, it’s possible some bills move ahead, likely those dealing with military spending, while others are bundled into a continuing resolution.
The Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee bill, for instance, is routinely snagged by riders cutting funding to the EPA. Panel Chairman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said he and his fellow cardinals must do a better job of persuading members to keep amendments to a minimum, particularly his fellow Republicans, who he said offer the bulk of the changes.
“Part of the challenge for us is convincing our members that adding 200 amendments to a bill is not really productive,” he said. “Make sure they’re meaningful amendments and not press release amendments.”
They have had limited success in that endeavor in the past. Conservative Republican Study Committee Chairman Steve Scalise, R-La., said he’s looking forward to amendments from his members targeting the IRS on the Financial Services Subcommittee bill and slashing Obamacare funding in the Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee product.
“That’s why we’re here is to tackle the tough issues,” he said. “We’re pushing them to do that. Our goal is to have a full open process.”
An analog problem for leaders is one of time. The process cannot start until the president sends his budget to Congress, which is not expected until well after the statutory Feb. 3 deadline. A return to regular order in the Senate would require far more than agreement on the top-line spending level; it would also necessitate a change in strategy on the part of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. GOP senators note that only four minority amendments have seen floor votes since July of last year, as Reid has repeatedly maneuvered to avoid having his vulnerable senators take tough votes.
And if the process isn't finished by the August recess, any attempt at real policymaking will be eclipsed by pure politics until Election Day.
Appropriators estimate they will need a minimum of a full month of floor time, perhaps more, in June or July to complete the 12 bills. It is dubious, some aides said, that leaders would allot so much time in the dead center of a pivotal election year to unpredictable floor debates, rather than voting on targeted political messaging bills to corner their opponents.
And because each bill will likely come with hundreds of amendments, the open process simply takes too long, said Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis, a former appropriator. That is why she has come to favor a rule for floor debate that limits amendments.
“It would be literally unmanageable. When you’re allocating floor time, that’s not realistic,” the Wyoming Republican said. “I don’t believe a fully open rule is the way to go because of the effort of both parties to try to run out the clock on amendment after amendment” on the controversial bills.
Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, though, has made an open process a central plank of his tenure. That, said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden is not likely to change.
“I don’t know if that’s in the speaker’s DNA,” the Oregonian said. “The one time you have the ability to come affect policy on the floor is during appropriations with amendments. I doubt that will be denied.”