Regardless of who wins the presidency this November – and it could be a narcissist, a felon, or a socialist – Congress must return to normal order. Indeed, Paul Ryan accepted the Speaker’s gavel with a promise to return to “regular order,” in which the Congress runs by deliberation rather than unanimous consent, omnibus, or decree. The Wisconsin Republican pledged that the committees would retake the lead in drafting all major legislation. Ryan made clear that “when we rush to pass bills a lot of us do not understand, we are not doing our job.”
Ryan has promised to "wipe the slate" clean in 2016 after years of a legislative process run amok. That means a return to “regular order,” especially on spending issues. That means no grand bargains with the president (whoever that may be); no more “cromnibus” bills – the dreaded long-term omnibus spending combined with short-term continuing resolutions – to fund the government. And, depending on who wins the White House, regular order in the House and Senate may be our last, best defense of liberty against statism and an imperial bureaucracy.
On the Senate side, even “Mr. Establishment” himself – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – promised much of the same: an end to business-as-usual. Many political observers believe that in his quest to hold on to the Republican majority this November, McConnell’s commitment to pursue the regular spending process may be his most powerful weapon to convince conservatives (who are fed up with Washington) that Republicans have been properly chastened.
At the GOP’s annual legislative retreat in Baltimore last month, the Kentucky Republican and other prominent Senate Republicans persistently talked about their commitment to regular order by passing all appropriations bills individually, rather than by parliamentary actions or in a massive omnibus. “We’re going to look for opportunities to make some progress this year,” McConnell said at a joint news conference with Speaker Ryan. “It’s not going to titillate the public, but one obvious step would be, for the first time since 1994, [to] do all the appropriations bills.”
Political outcomes matter, but political process matters, too. In fact, process matters more in the long run. President Obama, Harry Reid, and the Republican establishment have abused the legislative process to the point of threatening the republic and our liberty. The good news is that Republican leadership has “seen the light” and is dedicated to restoring the process, and thus—perhaps—repairing some of the damage done to our liberty over the last seven years.
Then again, Congress is still made up of politicians so we’ll know if Speaker Ryan is serious about his pledge only after he and McConnell actually get it done. And, we’ll know soon. The new year is barely a month old, and already there is a serious threat to Paul Ryan’s pledge to get our legislative process back to regular order. Senator Claire McCaskill has submitted a boondoggle, spending bill to Congress. The Missouri Democrat is pushing to get the measure adopted by the Senate through unanimous consent thereby preventing any hearings, markups, or any critical evaluation of the measure.
Here are the bullet-points of McCaskill’s bill: the proposal would upend a plan to clean up the West Lake Landfill, located in St. Louis. After a decade of study, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that the existing landowners would cover all the costs of the clean-up which would be completed by year’s end. However, McCaskill’s looney idea is to undo this agreement by compelling more study (because she wants the EPA to study the site for another ten years?). The senator wants the project to be conducted by the Army Corp of Engineers, not private sector contractors. And just like a liberal Democrat, McCaskill would shift all costs of the project to the American taxpayer to the tune of over $400 million.
If the Senate passes the McCaskill bill, Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO) is seeking to have the same bill voted on in the House without hearings, markups, or any open process that might call attention to the bill’s failings and costs. Ms. Wagner—a Republican incumbent—is challenging Speaker Ryan’s commitment to restoring regular order. Under regular order, the McCaskill/Wagner bill would go through the process from committee to the floor. The legislation would be vetted, debated, and amended before receiving a final up-or-down vote.
The Republican majority in the House has an extraordinary opportunity to lay out a comprehensive conservative blueprint for the first time in a generation. And, Speaker Ryan is intent on moving a “bold conservative agenda” in 2016. Heritage Action has asked Speaker Paul Ryan to deliver the keynote address at its third annual policy summit. Speaker Ryan will speak about ways to unite the conservative movement “around big ideas to save the American idea.” One such big idea is to restore the integrity of the legislative process. Regular order is an important safeguard for liberty and a constraint on Big Government.
A conservative agenda and building a movement around pro-liberty ideas must begin with the Congress keeping sacrosanct the legislative process. Otherwise we’re in for more of the same—no accountability and passing a bill to know what’s in the bill. Will Speaker Ryan lay his promise to rest? For the cause of liberty and moving forward with a “bold conservative agenda”, let’s hope that Paul Ryan is true to his word.