We have a legislative process, often referred to as "regular order," for good reason. The committee, floor, and conference committee stages of the process are designed to maximize transparency and allow all members of Congress to offer their input on the impending bill.
In recent months, there has been a disturbing trend among House leaders to jettison the floor process in the House in favor of a shortcut straight to conference committee with the Senate. They claim that this is needed in order to finish all the "must-pass" legislation on time. In reality, they are undermining their own majority in the House, while abdicating gratuitous power to the Senate. You would think that Republicans would be eager to leverage the power of the House – the one body they control – as much as possible. Instead, they have shown that their desire to forge deals supersedes transparency, as well as the leverage of their own conference.
Under regular order, after a bill has been fully vetted and voted on by the members of the committee with jurisdiction, it is then sent to the floor so that all members can vote on amendments to the bill. The other body follows the same procedure, either concurrently or sequentially. At that point, the two legislative bodies reconcile their differences by instructing conferees to a conference committee or by ping-ponging the bill back and forth until one body acquiesces.
However, under ‘House GOP order,’ they have agreed to send bills to conference committee even though the bills were never considered on the House floor. In some cases, the bills never even got out of committee. In other instances, they took obsolete bills that passed the House and totally transformed them without coming back to the conference for a floor vote.
First it was Harry Reid’s minibus bills. After House Republicans worked assiduously to formulate a commonsense budget for FY 2012, House leaders went straight to conference on Senate appropriations bills – bills that eschewed all our budget figures and policy riders – that were never considered on the House floor. This allowed the statists in both parties to negotiate bad legislation behind closed doors. Once the conference committee reported its final product, each body was forced to vote up-or-down – without any opportunity to offer amendments. The same thing occurred with the $1 trillion omnibus.
Those spending bills, which affect every facet of government, never went through regular order in the House. Even though one bill had already passed the House, Harry Reid tacked on new appropriations bills, funding massive components of government. These additional rider bills never passed the House, yet leadership in both parties felt that by using the name of the passed bill as the title, they would give the impression of using regular order. While they may be correct in the technical definition of regular order, they are clearly employing a stratagem that negates the transparency of the legislative process. Moreover, here is what Republicans promised on page 33 of the Pledge to America:
“We will end the practice of packaging unpopular bills with “must-pass” legislation to circumvent the will of the American people. Instead, we will advance major legislation one issue at a time.”
Another example is the payroll tax cut package. When Republicans caved on the two-month payroll tax cut package last December, the long-term bills were dead. They should have begun the new session by passing a new bill that would allow all members of the conference to ensure that unemployment insurance is reformed and that, at the very least, the entitlement spending in the bill is fully offset in a meaningful way. Instead, they chose to send it off to a conference committee.
House Republicans will now be placed in an awkward position when they are forced to vote up-or-down on an agreement that will undoubtedly be offensive to most conservatives. Harry Reid is already talking about larding up the conference report with a proposal to extend over 80 temporary tax credits and deductions (the annual “tax extenders”) that expired last year. While some of those extenders are pro-growth, others are handouts to green energy. Is it really a good idea to force Republicans to vote up-or-down on a single bill that contains a tax cut on the one hand, and entitlement spending and green handouts on the other?
These are all consequential and far reaching bills that require more attention from the full House than a simple up-or-down vote on a conference report. They should only go to conference based on a current bill passed by both houses, not based upon some tentative agreement between a few members, or an antiquated bill that has been abandoned prior to conference.
The reality is that this pernicious precedent was already set with the idea of the Supercommittee, which was hatched from the inane debt ceiling deal. The idea that a small group of Congress could be given complete authority over every aspect of budget and taxation is an anathema to the traditions of our legislative process.
Why would Republicans want to negate the leverage that is inherent in control over the most consequential body of Congress? They have control over all budget and taxation bills; let them use it to comply with their pledge for greater transparency.
Are they worried that there is not enough time to pass all these wonderful bills through an open amendment process on the floor? Then stay in session longer. It’s not like they have other jobs.
A tight schedule is not an excuse to short-circuit the legislative process, especially for the purpose of passing bad legislation.
Cross-posted from The Madison Project