When you hear cries for a “return to the regular order” from both parties in both chambers, you know there is either a bipartisan consensus about the causes of disorder and its cure or a selective invocation of the term by different folks with differing agendas. Alas, it is the latter — a political Rorschach test in which each group perceives the ink blot according to its peculiar “ink-linations.”
The regular order can be defined as those rules, precedents and customs of Congress that constitute an orderly and deliberative policymaking process. The process includes an objective assessment of the problem through inclusive information-gathering; a balanced weighing of alternative solutions and coming to final judgment on a solution through robust debate among all parties.
Here are some well-tested axioms on the regular order: 1) Both political parties when in the minority complain that the regular order is being abused by a majority bent on imposing its will without full debate and minority participation; 2) Both parties when in the minority vow to restore the regular order if they are returned to majority status; 3) Both parties, once they regain majority control, eventually abandon that pledge. That’s because they find it much easier to pass legislation in the form they want without having to jump through all those procedural hoops. Put another way, the regular order is set aside for the sake of convenience and partisan advantage.
Why, then, are calls for the regular order emanating from both chambers and parties today? It’s mainly because there’s enough disorder to go around for everyone to claim a piece of the regular order they wish to restore. And that may be a useful first step toward full restoration.
These past few years, Republicans in both chambers complained that Senate Democrats violated the regular order by not reporting the required annual budget resolution. This year, things changed. House Republicans pushed through a law denying House and Senate members’ pay for every day after April 15 their body did not adopt a budget resolution. Consequently, both chambers completed their work on time and on budget, sparing members the “marital rift” flagged in my Feb. 12 column.
However, given the huge disparities between the two budgets, it is questionable whether they can be reconciled. Two weeks ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Democratic leaders roundly castigated House Republican leaders for trying to obstruct the regular order by not appointing budget conferees. Never mind that the Senate had not yet requested a conference, the first step in the regular order of going to conference. It’s called a presumptive strike.
Last year, the Senate did not take up any of the 12 regular appropriations bills, a flagrant avoidance of regular order. The House passed seven bills before calling it quits, only to eventually agree with the Senate on two six-month continuing appropriations resolutions. Lost in that shortcut were all the amendments adopted to the seven House-passed money bills. Now, more than 80 House Republicans have petitioned the speaker to follow the regular order by completing all 12 appropriations bills on time under an open amendment process and not jettisoning adopted amendments in a fallback CR.
Members of both parties, in both chambers, stung by abysmal approval ratings and a lackluster legislative record in the last Congress are agitating for action this year by forming ad hoc gangs of (pick a number) to craft bipartisan solutions on a range of issues. At the same time, nervous committee chairmen are pleading with party leaders not to cave to gang activity and instead to honor the regular order of marking-up and reporting bills through the normal committee process.
Yes, it is spring and regular order shoots are springing-up everywhere. The trick is for the leadership to recognize their legitimacy while maintaining a garden that comes to bloom in an orderly and timely manner. The art of gardening, after all, requires strategic watering and weeding for success. Chauncey Gardiner could not have put it better.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.