Return to regular order

Will the 113th Congress mark the return of regular order?

Some conservatives and The Wall Street Journal have decried a broken congressional process in which most deals are concluded behind closed doors. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) promised his colleagues a more open process and that he was through negotiating with President Obama.

I am a big fan of regular order. When I worked for Denny Hastert (R-Ill.), he too promised a return to regular order after legislators were fed up with the dictatorial leadership style of Newt Gingrich.

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What does regular order actually mean?

In its simplest form, it means that both the House and the Senate abide by their standing rules.

It means that members of the House are allowed the broadest leeway to offer amendments to legislation. It means that both the House and the Senate complete their budgets on time. It means that federal programs that are not authorized by an authorizing committee are not funded by appropriations bills. It means that the House and the Senate convene in formal conferences to reconcile legislation. It means that the Congress pays for emergency spending requests, or at least includes doesn’t put major spending items (like wars) off-budget.

There is much to recommend in regular order. Giving every member of the House an opportunity to offer amendments seems like a no-brainer. Making sure that every single federal program goes through a regular check-up through oversight and with the Congress authorizing it with a formal vote makes sense. Taking the budget process seriously seems to most Americans to be essential.

And not having big deals made behind closed doors, where the media and the people can’t get a good look, comes from page 1 of the Good Government Handbook.

But going back to regular order isn’t as easy as it sounds.

First, it takes a long time. There are 435 members of the House, and if each one of them would take their allotted time under the five-minute rule, and each would offer all of the good ideas that came through their transom, it would take approximately 8 years to get through the first two weeks of legislative business.

The federal government, unfortunately, is also very, very big. While going through the bureaucracy with a fine-tooth comb is both advisable and probably necessary, doing that while refusing to keep it largely functioning is politically unsustainable.

The second problem with regular order for party leaders is that they can’t predict it. Having the House work its will sounds good in theory. In practice, too much democracy can get the leadership in a world of hurt, especially if the votes continually go against party orthodoxy.

That is what largely happened to Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in her brief time as Speaker, and she didn’t even bother with an open process. In fact, she would routinely lose motions to recommit when conservative Democrats would gladly vote against her leadership position.

Boehner probably doesn’t face that problem. His bigger problem seems to be that he would likely join about 80 of his colleagues and the Democrats to pass legislation that to most Americans makes plenty of sense, but to 60 of his other colleagues is an affront to conservative principles and to the rest an easy vote to keep the primary wolves at bay.

Much has been said about the Hastert majority of a majority rule. But one only needs to remember this simple fact: You vote with the minority of your majority too often and you end up out of a job.

To conservatives who demand a return to regular order, let me just say that makes plenty of sense when Republicans are in the minority, because in regular order, it is easy to stop dumb liberal things from getting done. But when Republicans are in the majority, regular order is no guarantee that conservatives will get their way. My guess is that regular order will deliver far more disappointment than relief.


Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.