Thursday, November 05, 2015

Another Speaker Promises "Regular Order"? This Time For Sure!

Quote #1: "We need to let every member contribute, not once they earn their stripes, but now. 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. In other words, we need to return to regular order."

Quote #2: "We need to stop writing bills in the speaker’s office and let members of Congress be legislators again. Too often in the House right now we don’t have legislators; we just have voters. . . . That’s not right. We were each elected to uphold the Constitution and represent 600,000-odd people in our districts. We need to open this place up, let some air in. We have nothing to fear from letting the House work its will–nothing to fear from the battle of ideas. That starts with the committees. The result will be more scrutiny and better legislation."

Quote #1 is from Paul Ryan, October 29, 2015, upon being elected to the speakership. Quote #2 is from John Boehner, October 25, 2010, just before winning a Republican majority in the House that would make him Ryan's predecessor as speaker.

During his ascent to the speakership of the House, Ryan has been making assurances that he will be a different kind of speaker than Boehner. Since most House Republicans seemed to like Boehner's governing style just fine, this is perhaps a surprising pledge to make. But it is largely aimed at satisfying the demands of the House Freedom Caucus, the hard-line conservative faction that chased Boehner from office and that was initially cool to a Ryan speakership until he won them over in a personal meeting.

One of the chief complaints made by Boehner's critics was that he often circumvented "regular order"—the textbook system of lawmaking in which bills written and debated in committee are reported to the floor by majority vote for consideration by the entire House. Ryan reiterated at his first press conference as speaker that he would return to this traditional process, rather than the increasingly frequent alternative scenario in which legislation written by the leadership is sent to the floor directly, often under a short deadline in an atmosphere of crisis. “Every mem­ber will have a chance to re­view each bill and give their in­put on their pri­or­it­ies. We have nev­er done this be­fore, but that is how we should work and from now on, that is how we will work,” Ryan told the press. In fact, he said that he would be willing to risk the failure of his own favored legislation on the floor rather than use his procedural power to strong-arm his fellow members.

It is worth remembering that Boehner, too, promised to observe "regular order" when he became speaker in 2011. He was unable to deliver on this promise because Republican-controlled committees often failed to agree on legislation, especially appropriations legislation—usually because a faction of purist conservatives refused to support spending bills developed by mainstream Republican committee and subcommittee chairs. With the Democratic minority also voting no, these bills would thus lack the majority support in committee necessary to move them to the floor. Since any final agreement on government funding ultimately required support from Senate Democrats and the Obama White House, Boehner usually chose to hammer out a bipartisan compromise first, then bring it back to the House for approval—where it usually passed on the floor with mostly Democratic votes.

Ryan surely understands that Boehner adopted this approach not because he yearned to rule the House with an iron fist, but because it was the only practical way to fund the government and avoid shutdowns or other crises given the current state of the House Republican Party. So why is he making a promise that seems so unlikely to be fulfilled? Maybe Ryan believes that he possesses unique powers of persuasion that will engender agreement and compromise among Republicans, allowing for a much smoother operation of the committee system. Or, alternatively, he adopted this pledge in order to gain the speakership, and will hold to it until its failure is so immediately apparent to all concerned that most of his fellow Republicans will openly plead with him to do things Boehner's way—in which case he will "reluctantly" agree that, though he's very sorry it came to this, he has no choice but to dispose of regular order once again, leaving the next speaker with the opportunity to make the very same promise that he and Boehner did.