After a tumultuous overthrow and a difficult search to find a replacement to fill what some have called the worst job in Washington, House Republicans have installed Paul Ryan as the new Speaker of the House. The House is certainly not an easy place to manage. Budgeting is Congress’ primary responsibility and in recent years, with increased regularity, they have missed key budget deadlines, resulting in routine budget crises. Case in point, every year since 2009, Congress has failed to meet its critical April 15th budget deadline for setting spending levels for the following fiscal year. This is due to the fact that Congress has been failing to follow the well-defined legislative process that was created to guide budget formulation. While Ryan has pledged to restore order to both the budgeting process and the general legislative process, he is up against a powerful trend and a difficult caucus.
In his acceptance speech, Paul Ryan said “we need to let every member contribute, not once they earn their stripes, but now.” He went on to say, “the committees should take the lead in drafting all major legislation: If you know the issue, you should write the bill. Let’s open up the process… we need to return to regular order.” Speaker Ryan is promising a more open process, but it will not be an easy task. While the far-right Freedom Caucus, leading Democrats, and even left-leaning institutions such as the Brookings Institute have argued that Regular Order is needed, both chambers have increasingly failed to follow it.
What is Regular Order?
As a child, you may remember the Schoolhouse Rock video that taught you how a bill becomes a law. You can already hear the jingle in your head now, can’t you? Our friend Bill would work his way through Congressional committees and floor debates, patiently waiting and hoping to make it to the President’s desk to be signed and become law. That process our friend worked his way through is called “regular order.” In general, regular order is a loosely defined term, but when referring to Congressional budgeting, regular order is a highly structured timeline and process for deciding the budget for the federal government. The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 set this process in place by strengthening and centralizing Congress’ budget authority, creating the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), requiring the annual adoption of a concurrent resolution on the budget, and creating Budget Committees in both chambers. Ultimately, budget resolutions are ‘must-pass’ bills that both chambers must vote on to ensure the United States government has a budget framework and funds to operate.
A troubling trend has been occurring in recent years. Studies show that failure to follow the regular order of the budget process is increasingly becoming the norm. When the budgeting process fails to follow regular order, Congress relies heavily on continuing resolutions (CRs). Occasionally, all federal spending for an entire year is provided through CRs. When appropriations bills do pass, they are often packaged together as major omnibus bills. Party leaders from both chambers and the White House negotiate these bills, thus circumventing the role of the respective appropriation committees and removing transparency from the process.
In December 2014, we saw something that the media referred to as the “cromnibus,” which was a combination of a long-term omnibus spending bill and shorter-term continuing resolutions. These omnibus bills have increasingly become prime opportunities to insert non-appropriation initiatives into must-pass legislation, leading to a further lack of transparency.
Congress’s dereliction of budgetary duty has become so bad that a full-blown government shutdown occurred in 2013 and potential shutdowns remain a constant threat. While Congress struggles to accomplish its basic budgetary responsibilities, longer-term structural issues — issues that cannot be resolved through CRs and omnibus bills — are pushed aside.
Regular Order: Easier Said Than Done
Even John Boehner, who was Speaker during the crisis-to-crisis governance of the past 5 years, agrees that the lack of regular order is a problem. Speaking about the most recent budget deal which the House passed on October 28 he said, “It stinks. This is not the way to run a railroad.” Boehner promised to restore regular order when he was elected speaker but consistently failed to do so.
So why do party leaders so often derail the process? For the sake of efficiency and political expediency. Increased polarization and the decline of decorum has given rise to tactics that aim to slow the workings of Congress. Some members attempt to take the budget hostage in hopes of forcing a narrow issue; regular order allows those tactics to flourish.
Oftentimes, party leadership wants to protect their vulnerable members by avoiding amendments that would force those members to choose between the party’s base and swing voters or alienate a key constituency. Major budget bills can also be picked apart and used as fodder for negative campaign ads. Following regular order opens the process and allows interests groups to exert influence by leveraging their massive resources, putting pressure on members and pushing for policy outcomes and reducing the power of leadership. Simply put, following regular order allows a process to play out that gives power to minority parties, renegade members, and outside groups, and power can be a difficult thing to share.
While discussing why the most recent budget deal was a product of last-minute negotiations instead of regular order, Boehner explained, “the alternative was a clean debt ceiling (bill) or default on our debt … and when we got to December 11, we would be facing another government shutdown…So when you look at the alternative, it starts to look a whole lot better. But I would hope that the process in the future would have a little more length to it and involve more members.”
So this raises the question, if Boehner could not clean up the process, how do we expect Paul Ryan to do so? There are a number of tough policy options out there. For the sake of the United States fiscal standing, let’s hope the new Speaker can figure it out.
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