The Myth of Regular Order
Posted on October 6, 2015
(This originally appeared in The Hill)
In the aftermath of the Jim Wright resignation and the House bank scandal in the early 1990s, then-Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) and then-House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.) struggled to fix a broken Congress.
They created a Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, the third effort in the history of the House to modify how lawmakers do business. But Foley never had the opportunity to implement the recommendations of the committee, because he and his party were swept out of power in the historic 1994 elections. Neither did Michel, who retired just before his party regained control for the first time in more than 40 years.
Foley and Michel were attempting to implement reforms that would return Congress to “regular order,” a mythical time when the House would work its will; when amendments were considered and offered to improve the legislative process, not to create 30-second ads; when the appropriations process worked without shutting the government down; when power was dispersed so that every member could represent his or her district; when the leadership and the committee chairmen worked in harmony as a team, rather than in conflict.
Many of the recommendations made by the joint committee were included in the party’s Contract with America, including an end to proxy voting, a term limit on the tenure of committee chairmen, and a law that Congress has to abide by the laws it passes on to the rest of the American people. There were also promises to open up the process, to allow more debate on the floor and otherwise take steps to go back to regular order.
But as time went by, reality conflicted with the myth.
The job of the Speaker of the House is not to preside over regular order. The Speaker’s job is to expedite the will of the majority party, to keep the trains running on time and to otherwise protect the prerogatives and the power of the House of Representatives. And soon after taking power, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was doing the same kinds of things that Wright has been doing to move legislation through the process expeditiously.
My former boss, Rep. Denny Hastert (R-Ill.), similarly promised to move to regular order when he became Speaker. He too wanted to pay more deference to the committee chairmen, wanted to stick to budget deadlines as outlined by the law, and to protect the rights of the minority to offer amendments. He was more patient than Gingrich had been. He said his job was to be a listener more than Speaker.
But he also learned the reality of governing conflicts with the myth of regular order. He learned that the secret of staying in the Speaker’s chair is to understand that you must please the majority of your majority or risk losing the confidence of your members.
When Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) became Speaker, he too promised regular order. Indeed, he famously allowed the House to work its will early on in his tenure, in 2011, to have the Rules Committee allow members to offer countless amendments to spending bills, to give his members more access to the levers of power.
But the conflict between the will of the majority of the House and the majority of his majority became untenable. A clear majority — including the Speaker — wanted action on a comprehensive immigration bill, but his Republican Conference did not. A clear majority wanted to lift the budget caps, but a majority of his majority did not. A clear majority in the House did not want the government to shut down, but his conference clearly thought that shutting it down was a necessary exercise in a battle of wills with President Obama.
Boehner learned the perils of trying to allow the House to work its will while trying to give his conference what it said it wanted.
The new Speaker, whoever he or she may be, will be trying to once again reinstall regular order in the House. It’s easier to say than it is to do.