In Congress, 'regular order' is a tall order

A budget resolution and clear spending allocations could bring much-needed stability to agency planning efforts.

U.S. Capitol at Night with Trees

As the budget process grinds on, and federal employees sweat out round after round of furloughs and budget cuts, leaders in the Senate and the House are sparring over a return to "regular order" to make the appropriations process open and transparent.

What that means, for those not steeped in the arcana of the legislative process, is that the budget resolutions passed by the House and the Senate would be brought to a conference committee, and a compromise resolution would be produced with spending allocations for each of the 12 appropriations subcommittees in each chamber of Congress. At that point, under regular order, there would be a return to the old-fashioned process of how a bill becomes a law that is spelled out in the Schoolhouse Rock cartoons.

What happens instead is something quite different.

"If there were anything that is more obscure than the budget process on the Hill, then I don't know what it is," said former Senate Parliamentarian Robert Dove. "I helped create it. All I can tell you is, we meant well. But it has not turned out well."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) launched the latest salvo in the regular order wars on April 23, when he accused Republican leaders in the House of Representatives of backing off their agreement to establish a conference committee because they feared "a tea party revolt."

But the conservative constituency in the House says it wants regular order too, at least for the appropriations process. Late last week, a group of 90 House Republicans complained in an open letter that, "It is becoming increasingly difficult to support long term Continuing Resolutions because we know that proceeding with regular order is the better way."

What's going on, other than the daily back-and-forth of political posturing? In part, says Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution, rank-and-file members are "tired of backroom deals" when President Obama meets with congressional leaders "to come up with the grand bargain."

It helps to understand that the House and the Senate are leadership-driven institutions, said Dove. "What you have in Congress right now is a situation in which things are simply bucked up to the top level – the two leaders in the Senate, the Speaker in the House. They frankly ignore the regular order and go on their merry way."

A return to regular order would restore the ability of rank and file members to influence legislation at the committee level. Congressional committees "are full of people who try to devote their lives to follow the area in which their committee has jurisdiction," Dove said. "When you shut them out of the process, you wind up with ill-considered legislation. We're not getting as good a legislative product as we deserve."

It's an open question as to whether the leadership of either chamber is interested in relinquishing the power to write legislation to Congressional committees. The Senate leaders and the majority leadership in the House maintain large staffs to draft legislation and negotiate budget agreements, largely out of view of the public.

"There's some value to having a working committee system that, in its heyday, could incubate policy and come up with consensus," Binder said. "You could have all the regular order you want, but nothing gets done without the consent of the party leaders"

But whether a budget and a set of appropriations bills for fiscal year 2014 is hashed out in public, or decided in back rooms by leadership, there remains the enormous ideological gulf between the Democratic and Republican plans that seems to defy compromise. House Republicans want dramatic cuts to taxes and federal spending over the next decade. Senate Democrats are looking to achieve deficit reduction through a mix of $1 trillion in new revenue and spending cuts, but they are also proposing more short term economic stimulus to try to spur job growth.

It's hard to imagine the contours of a successful deal between such dramatically different visions of government. This is why the discussion about regular order is so politically charged – because the leadership in both parties party wants to deflect blame for failing to arrive at a budget deal. But it's doubtful that either side expects a return to regular order to magically produce a bipartisan agreement. "A process itself can't produce compromise," Binder said.

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