It’s easy to say that Congress needs to be fixed. It’s much tougher to do. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Kevin McCarthy is in the same position as many other speakers of the House before him: he has to promise both certain policy results and a fair and open process.
Some of the most conservative members of the Republican conference reportedly demanded that McCarthy do two things at the same time in exchange for their votes for speaker: cut spending by a lot and open up the political process so that Congress could go back to “regular order,” where all members, not just the leadership, have a say in how laws are made. McCarthy will have a hard time reaching both goals, especially when it comes to raising the debt ceiling.
All members of the House are right to be upset about a broken process in which substantial spending bills are negotiated behind closed doors and then voted on in the middle of the night. It’s also something that almost every backbencher has ever said they didn’t like.
During the Nancy Pelosi years, the process in Congress went off the rails even more than it had in the past two decades. The former House speaker didn’t care much about fairness and was happy to step on the rights of the House minority.
When I was a top aide to then-Speaker Denny Hastert, the so-called “Accidental Speaker” who took over after Newt Gingrich’s tumultuous time in charge ended suddenly in 1999, we promised to bring regular order to the House.
Back then, “regular order” meant a commitment to an orderly, democratic, and predictable process. It depended on the authorizing committees to do their authorizing, the budget committee to do its budgeting, the taxing committee (Ways and Means) to do its taxing, and the spending committee (Appropriations) to do its spending.
We said we would give members back the power to make decisions and laid out a clear plan to ensure America’s future was safe. Hastert had many problems in his personal life. Still, he was a good leader on Capitol Hill because he promised to listen more than talk, and his colleagues gave him the most extended term as Republican speaker of the House in history as a reward. It was a great way to do things in Congress. But then conservatives realized that regular order didn’t always reflect what they wanted, which was a lot less government.
When Hastert insisted that a bill be passed to modernize Medicare with a prescription drug benefit, things started to go out of order. Conservatives got angry, so the speaker had to keep a vote open for three and a half hours, which was not how things worked. But Hastert said three hours was not too long for people waiting 30 years for their drug benefits.
Bill Thomas, who used to be McCarthy’s boss, was the head of the Ways and Means Committee and one of the prominent people behind the Medicare Modernization Act. He didn’t care much about keeping things in order. Like President George W. Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and other members of the Republican establishment, he just wanted the bill to pass. Conservatives were angry, but most older people were happy about the new drug benefit.
Regular order is excellent until you pass laws that please both your party’s members and the American people. And this is the challenge McCarthy and the other Republicans in the House face as they move forward. The idea of regular order is fine. But the American people don’t care about the process in the end. They care about how things go.
I understand how the small group of rebels felt when they asked McCarthy to give them more power in the legislative process. I also know that they used all their ability to get concessions from him before they gave him their vote for speaker. But they need to know that regular order doesn’t mean conservatives always get what they want.
And they must ask themselves, “What do they want?” Do they want an open process where they can win points for debate but might lose votes on amendments? Or do they want to change the process so that it goes their way, shut down debate, and hope that enough moderates will vote their way in a House that has always had narrow margins?
As Congress thinks about what to do about the debt limit, these questions become even more critical. When the debt limit is raised, it is rare for a member of Congress to lose their seat. Voters don’t care about the obscure debates in Congress about our ridiculous lack of fiscal responsibility.
But that doesn’t mean that political campaigns don’t try to use the debt limit to their advantage, and especially for Republicans, it is a hard vote to take. GOP lawmakers don’t like spending that is out of control, and it makes them mad when they can’t seem to do anything about it.
A regular order approach to dealing with the debt limit would include hearings at the Ways and Means and Budget committees, a markup at the committee level, a hearing at the Rules Committee, where the panel would decide which amendments would be considered, and then a vigorous debate on the floor, where those amendments would be considered.
If that regular order process were used, the House would probably vote down most amendments backed by conservatives that would sharply cut spending on entitlement programs. It would then pass a reasonably clean bill to raise the debt ceiling and send it to the Senate. Then, with help from some Republicans, the Democratic-led Senate would pass the bill in the name of economic stability, and President Joe Biden would be happy to sign it.
It would be a fair and honest debate, but the outcome wouldn’t be very conservative. Even though the House GOP leans conservative on many issues, there is a bipartisan majority to do the opposite of what the hard right wants in some areas, like spending money on the military, keeping the government open, and avoiding a debt default and possible financial crisis.
The conservative movement rarely gets clear-cut results that make everyone happy. And that’s what the Freedom Caucus and Kevin McCarthy deal with. They can talk about the need for regular order, but at the end of the day, the speaker has to find a way to keep his majority happy and show that he can govern for the rest of the American people. I hope the new speaker is successful.
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