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Feehery: Pain, suffering and the legislative process

Kevin McCarthy
FILE -Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks during a news conference in Statuary Hall at the Capitol in Washington, Jan.12, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) would say about budget negotiations that “the pain was inevitable but the suffering was optional.”

Sometimes, though, the suffering is not optional. Sometimes suffering through a rigorous legislative process, which usually entails long weekends, late nights and many votes, is the only way to reach consensus. 

Last week, House Republicans considered a relatively modest piece of legislation — making it more difficult for the Biden administration to raid the strategic oil reserve for political purposes — under an open rule.  

Most Americans don’t care about process and couldn’t describe the difference between an open rule and Genghis Khan. But for the House, considering legislation under an open amendment process represents a big change from how business was conducted under Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) reign. The former speaker didn’t like the messiness of Democratic debate, preferring to compel order behind closed doors and rule with an iron fist.  

But one of the salutary impacts of the right-wing rebellion that held up Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) speakership was a demand for regular order.  

I have long believed that in lawmaking, process is just as important as substance. If the American people do not believe that their laws are created through a fair and balanced process, they won’t trust that the laws are valid.

The legislative process, over the last 50 years, has become less and less open, and more and more staged. Debates on the House and Senate floors are rarely attended and rarely matter. If there is a sense that most deals are clinched behind closed doors, with wealthy special interests controlling the process, well, that’s because that is what often happens.

It used to be that most major pieces of legislation were conducted through a much more open legislative process. Debates on the House and Senate floors were consequential. Conference committees were appointed by the respective chambers, and they actually had conference meetings, where points of difference were debated and voted on. Appropriations bills were always brought to the House floor under open rules. Rep. Bill Natcher (D-Md.), the former chairman of the Labor-HHS Subcommittee, would sometimes bring his bill up as a privileged motion without a rule, meaning that all unauthorized programs could be knocked out under a point of order.

An open process would help to educate the voters and the members. Every point of view would be debated and voted on. This is important, because what the voters most want is to know that their voice is being heard.  

The House drifted away from an open amendment process because the members themselves didn’t like how they would be forced to take votes on amendments that were not meant to further the legislative process but instead were meant to be packaged as 30-second commercials. Members didn’t want to explain to their constituents why that one amendment that seemingly slashed Social Security or let violent criminals out of jail was actually a procedural vote that allowed the bill to advance to the Senate.  

In the Senate, instead of plowing through the spending bills and dealing with all of the big debates that the appropriations bills are supposed to deal with, the majority leaders of both parties just decided to not bring them on the floor. Instead of exposing their vulnerable members to tough votes, they just didn’t vote at all. One of the impacts of this decision was that more moderate members didn’t have enough votes to distinguish from their leadership and thus demonstrate to their voters that they were indeed independent.  

Members of the House and the Senate are sent to Washington to represent the views of their constituents. It is not supposed to be a necessarily pleasant experience. As Dick Armey would say, there is real pain in the legislative process, especially if your constituents don’t get everything they want, or in some cases, anything they want. 

But there is virtue in both the pain and the suffering. When the voters see a long, emotional and messy legislative process, they at least know that their views are being considered and if they don’t prevail, they know why. That is what the democratic process is supposed to be.  

Feehery is a partner at EFB Advocacy and blogs at He served as spokesman to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), as communications director to former House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and as a speechwriter to former House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.).

Tags Biden Kevin McCarthy Nancy Pelosi open rule regular order

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