It lacks the rhetorical flair of “Remember the Maine!” or even “Yes We Can!” but the demand for “regular order” has become a potent rallying cry for lawmakers from both parties unhappy with the way Congress is being run.
The huge economic stimulus bill working its way through Congress is just the latest measure to bypass the normal operating procedures on Capitol Hill — the “regular order” of subcommittee and committee hearings, committee markups of legislation and vetting and amending through floor debates before a final vote.
Republicans, distinctly outnumbered in both the House and Senate, are predictably unhappy with their lack of influence on the bill-drafting process. What has been striking is that many Democrats are demanding a return to regular order as well.
Nearly 70 members of two influential House Democratic caucuses — the fiscally conservative Blue Dogs and the centrist New Democrats — wrote an open letter last week to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer complaining of the way the $800 billion-plus stimulus bill was being rushed through.
“Committees must function thoroughly and inclusively, and cooperation must ensue between the parties and the houses to ensure that our legislative tactics enable rather than impede progress,” they wrote. “In general, we must engender an atmosphere that allows partisan games to cease and collaboration to succeed.”
Fiscal conservatives complain that the stimulus bill includes a broad array of spending programs and policy changes that would not have survived had they been scrutinized by the committees and subcommittees that have jurisdiction over those issues.
Somewhat surprisingly, Mr. Hoyer went out of his way to agree with the critics.
“I think this is a very important pursuit,” the Maryland Democrat said. “It is not just Blue Dogs; there are the New Democrats and others, hopefully a broader spectrum, [who] are writing to me urging the leadership to pursue regular order.”
The giant stimulus bill, which Mrs. Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid want to get to President Obama by the Presidents Day recess, was put together after just one public markup by the finance and appropriations committees of both chambers. It contains dozens of major tax changes and spending programs added largely in closed-door meetings dominated by the party leaders and a few favored committee chairmen.
The largest such bill in the country’s history passed the House after just a day of floor debate and was poised to be approved after only a week of argument and amendments on the Senate floor.
The $700 billion Wall Street bailout package approved in the fall was drafted largely by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat. The proposed $15 billion bailout of the Big Three automakers also was put together with minimal committee input and ultimately died without a vote in the Senate in December.
Mrs. Pelosi, who critics say has centralized power in her office and the hands of a few favored allies, contends that the emergency nature of the bills — at a time when the U.S. credit, finance and manufacturing sectors seemed on the verge of collapse — made it necessary to bypass the slower processes of the legislative mill.
“The speaker prefers to consider legislation in regular order, and the committees of jurisdiction held hearings and markups on the current economic recovery bill,” said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill. “In a few cases, because of urgent financial crises, the leadership agreed to use expedited procedures. However, both the speaker and leadership agree that it is preferable to use regular order, especially in non-emergency cases, and that has always been the intent.”
But the rushed nature of the process has its dangers.
Mrs. Pelosi and leaders of both parties were stunned when the House in late September rejected the first version of the Wall Street rescue bill, a vote that sent financial markets tumbling around the world. The need for speed led party vote-counters to underestimate the depth of the hostility to the bailout from rank-and-file members of both parties.
Despite Mr. Obama’s hopes for a bipartisan vote in support of the economic rescue bill, not a single House Republican voted for the measure in the end.
Mrs. Pelosi has been by turns dismissive and conciliatory in recent days about complaints over the way the House has operated on recent major bills.
On the day of the House vote over the stimulus package, she dismissed the Republicans’ grumbling that they had been shut out in their attempts to shape the bill.
“When you can’t win on policy, you always turn to process, and then you turn to personalities,” she said. It was a line she liked so much she repeated it at least twice in subsequent press appearances.
However, at the House Democratic retreat in Williamsburg last week, the speaker spoke in different tones. In a closed-door meeting with her caucus, Mrs. Pelosi reportedly assured members that Congress would return to the regular order of drafting, amending and voting on bills — after the stimulus package is approved.
“The first thing that the speaker was talking about and I’m sure the president will address is that people understand the need for regular order,” Connecticut Rep. John B. Larson, chairman of the Democratic caucus, told reporters after the session.
However, Republicans have used the lack of debate and committee deliberations as a potent talking point in attacking the stimulus bill as a whole. Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, noted that the Senate last year spent five weeks on floor debate on an energy bill, compared to just a week on the far more massive stimulus bill.
In an unusually pointed exchange, Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, clashed on the Senate floor Thursday after Mr. Graham waved a thick draft of the bill over his head and said lawmakers were being asked to vote on a bill about which they knew little.
“I’m here to point out the fact that this is not bipartisanship. … We’re not working together,” Mr. Graham complained. “We’re about to spend $800 [billion] or $900 billion, and no one has a clue where we’re going to land, and we have to do it by tonight. I’m telling you right now that if this is the new way of doing business, if this is the change we all can believe in, America’s best days are behind her.”
• S.A. Miller contributed to this report.
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