A Bit Dry But Worthwhile…

Regular Order is a phrase that is not terribly well understood and that is also a bit on the dry side, but it is very important that we have an understanding as we begin to watch our Congress tackle the tough subjects.  Peter Hanson of the Brookings Institute has published a piece titled “Restoring regular order in congressional appropriations”, in case you would like to study it in detail.  The Executive Summary follows:

“The annual appropriations process is in a state of collapse.  A primary symptom is the decline of “regular order”, the budget procedure for debating and passing individual appropriations bills in each chamber.  Today this procedure has been replaced by the passage of huge “omnibus” packages at the end of the session, with little scrutiny and opportunity for amendment.

While both chambers have some responsibility for the breakdown in this key part of federal budgeting, the Senate’s rules and procedures shoulder most of the blame.

It’s time to restore regular order.  To do this the Senate would need to take several important steps, including:

  • Reform the filibuster rule by allowing a simple majority of Senators to end debate on all matters related to appropriations bills.
  • Utilize concurrent consideration of appropriations bills.  This would allow the Senate to move on appropriations bills without waiting for the House to finish action and would permit greater time for Senate scrutiny.
  • Restore limited earmarking.  Despite the arguments for eliminating earmarking, doing so has had the unintended effect of making it harder to pass appropriations.  A limited restoration of earmarks could help achieve agreement yet maintain a curb on wasteful spending.
  • Reduce transparency.  While open government is broadly supported, for many lawmakers the intense scrutiny of their votes makes them reticent to vote for any compromise.  Members might be more inclined to cast tough votes on appropriations if only final tallies, not individual votes, were reported.

We elect people to serve us in Congress.  We expect to be able to keep track of their positions and their votes while they are serving us to be sure we’re getting what we thought we’d voted for.  The appropriations process is probably the key to every Congress.  Who gets what, how is it to be spent, and whom among the two bodies voted yes and who voted no.

Not many of us voters take the time, maybe because we don’t have it to take, to closely follow the workings of the Congress.  A very few of us even take the time to attend the local meetings held by our elected Representatives and Senators while they are back in their districts and states.

The use of ‘omnibus’ bills takes away much of our opportunity to exact responsibility when the omnibus tool is invoked to secure passage.  There are so many relatively smaller things tucked into these omnibus packages that there is a significant opportunity for each member to remain relatively obscure so far as his or her voting record.  They can always lay claim to the fact they had to do what they did to get the good parts of the omnibus package for their constituents.

Hanson makes his statement that it is time to “take serious steps” to restore regular order, and he presents a very cogent argument in support of his statement.  Without the use of regular order, we effectively lose our ability to police every vote taken by those whom we sent to Washington, D.C.

I participate in a local government body.  Our debates are televised and the public is invited to attend any of the meetings.  Individual votes are taken on every item being debated and who voted for and against is duly noted.  I am forced to think about each vote since I do not have the opportunity to hide behind some kind “omnibus” package.  I am also in the community every day, not off in a never-never land where my vote might be forgotten by the time I return to my home.

Peter Hanson is absolutely correct.  Regular order needs to be restored and made the order of the day for both the Senate and the House.  We need to be able to discern quickly who voted how and why they say they did so.  The opportunity to hide inside the pack with convenient excuses for our behavior is an invitation to abuse the power vested by us in our elected officials.  It works very well at the local level and at the state level for the most part.  It needs to be made part of the national elected bodies so we know what happens and why it happened and by whose hand it happened.  Only then can we demand and exact responsibility for votes cast.

On a lighter note:  Ernie Kovacs is quoted as saying:

“Television is a medium, so called because it is neither rare nor well-done.”

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