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Policy Gridlock: Is It the New Regular Order?

The three prerequisites Johnson notes as essential to restoring some measure of regular order are a participatory and deliberative committee system that aims to develop good policy, a more open amendment process on the House floor and a return to conference committees to resolve differences. He says all of these could technically be done tomorrow by the leadership through the Rules Committee. 

What stands in the way, of course, is what Sinclair points to: the will of the majority party to have its way. And that way is all about getting re-elected and retaining majority status. The majority does not trust the minority to behave as rational, responsible actors if allowed to fully participate. 

Both parties, while in the minority, have amply demonstrated their willingness to use political subterfuge through amendments to put majority Members in politically embarrassing positions — what Sinclair calls the difference between the “popular” and the “responsible” approach.

The puzzling thing to many observers is how Congress, which is suffering the lowest public approval ratings in the history of polling, can continue with partisan gamesmanship that seems to sacrifice the public interest for party gain. 

Party leaders, backed by their anxious caucus members, have apparently concluded that irregular order is the best way to retain power and that people don’t care about the procedural shortcuts being used. 

In 1913, when House Republicans complained about the procedural abuses of the Democrats’ “King Caucus,” Speaker Champ Clark (D-Mo.) responded: “The people of the United States ... are much more interested in results than in the methods by which those results are obtained.” 

Perhaps this fall’s elections will help determine whether the people think they are even getting the results they want or whether we will continue to flail along in the new regular order of gridlock. 

Don Wolfensberger is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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