September is groundhog month for GOP Congress
© Haiyun Jiang

There's a rhythm to each year for our Republican-controlled Congress. As the year begins, Republicans promise to act on a bold agenda for the country's future: reform of taxes and entitlements, bills that would rein in our out-of-control regulatory state, transformation of our web of means-tested welfare programs into engines of opportunity, the uncompromising elimination of corporate welfare programs wherever they can be found.

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But September is groundhog month for Washington. Having failed to do much, if anything, to advance the priorities laid out at the start of each year, Congress reconvenes and makes a more cautious assessment that inevitably begins the process of "cleaning the barn." And each year's barn-cleaning looks about the same as the last year's. This year: a continuing resolution to fund the government without meaningful action to cut wasteful spending or enact conservative policy changes; the annual package of lobbyist-drafted "tax extenders"; appropriations for the latest national emergency, the Zika virus; and action on the major items of in-district pork like a bailout of the U.S. Postal Service and longstanding K Street priorities, like an internet sales tax proposal.

And somehow, each year-end exercise in mitigating the damage of a year's worth of inaction leaves conservatives fearing that Republicans will, for no reason at all, sacrifice hard-fought gains merely because the clock is ticking out on so-called must-pass legislation. The last several Congresses have brought us bipartisan deals to bust the sequester caps on discretionary spending. This year, some in Republican leadership suggest the timing of a continuing resolution could determine whether the Hyde Amendment's restrictions on taxpayer funding of abortion remain the law of the land.

Is this why voters sent Republicans to Congress? To grandstand about their commitment to conservatism at the start of the year and set high legislative aspirations, before refocusing after the summer on special interest gimmes and "must-pass" priorities that inspire no one outside the Beltway? Why does Congress always spend September resigning itself to wasting the end of each year on the same disappointing year-end procedural fights and entirely self-inflicted policy losses? Is Congress really incapable of ending each year on a high note?

The truth is that few members of Congress, and few Capitol Hill staffers for that matter, really enjoy this year-end dance of posturing, nose-holding and concession to the reality of a year wasted. But this is a path they have chosen over the course of their decisions throughout each year. The dirty secret of Washington is that for all their happy talk about a productive year of conservative legislating, most players involved in the year-end Capitol Hill drama have known how this year would end for months, long before the August recess.

That September would be occupied primarily by cleanup of the messes left over from the year is a largely function of the failure of congressional leaders to understand the divides within their own party and overcome opposition from across the aisle. As a crutch, they have leaned on process instead. Regular order was more than a talking point for House leaders this year; it was their central fixation, idealized as the height of legislative policymaking. The Washington establishment sees in the modern history of Congress no alternative example of "real" policymaking worth drawing on. Thus, those eager to see the House "get to work" invested most of their efforts into forcing an appropriations process doomed to failure onto members. And another year got wasted.

Oh, what ever did Congress do before the birth of the administrative state they now spend so much time trying to fund!

Instead of making regular order for its own sake their goal, appropriators and other leaders should focus instead on the policy achievements they would like to achieve through regular order. For months, they have promised conservatives that regular order would yield significant conservative policy victories through the amendment process. What are these amendments that are supposed to justify rejection of fiscal restraint? Can anyone point to more than token gestures toward real reform on most appropriations bills? If not, is the lack of enthusiasm for the process really all that surprising?

A year spent developing real reform ideas first and foremost, not trying to generate consensus around bloated budget numbers, would take us into future Septembers with happier prospects. At a minimum, with the clock drawing down on government funding, a year's worth of legislative policy development would leave Congress with more than just budget numbers and timing to debate. But more important, it would give Congress something to do with its time aside from wallow in the appropriations process, including votes on standalone legislation that give the American people a sense of the Republican vision of governance.

With a year spent on real policy development, not just bickering over process and working behind the scenes to prepare K Street priorities for year-end passage in the dead of the lame-duck night, Congress might look to September with optimism, not dread.

Let's make this September the last one to kick off the start of nose-holding season.

Needham is the CEO of Heritage Action for America.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.