Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Some members of Congress frustrated at being left out of key debates; some long for a return to 'regular order'

Republican Congressman John Campbell of Irvine predicts a return to regular order — at least at the back end of the budget debate, once both the House and Senate pass their own versions.

Freshman Democratic Congressman Mark Takano of Riverside complains that big issues, such as the sequester and raising the debt ceiling, are being shuffled off to select groups without any input from the rank-and-file.


In both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, select groups of lawmakers are working on immigration reform. These exclusive “working groups” are bypassing the usual legislative process.

As a result, a growing number of members of Congress are longing for the old days when laws were crafted in committees – a return to what's known as "regular order."

But what exactly does that mean?

Donald Ritchie, the Senate Historian, says regular order is what you'd learn in Political Science 101. 

"It’s how a bill becomes law," Ritchie says. "A bill is referred to the committee, the committee hands it over to a subcommittee, the subcommittee holds hearings, reports it back to the committee where it is amended, and then the committee sends it to the floor for the debate."

In other words, what we all learned on “Schoolhouse Rock," where a singing bill was stuck in committee, while: "a few key Congressmen discuss and debate whether they should let me be a law."

Ritchie says one of the problems in the past was that sometimes the committee wasn’t reporting out the legislation.

"There were people on the committee who were violently opposed to whatever the subject was," he said. So he says leaders in the House and Senate started going around the established process.

He wrote the book

Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute wrote an entire book about the demise of regular order. He says former GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich bypassed committees by creating task forces, and his successor, Dennis Hastert, would change bills without notifying members, bringing up votes in the middle of the night.

"All of that led to a decline in debate and deliberation, shutting down of votes and amendments in the House, with closed rules," " Ornstein says.

Which is why Capitol Hill veterans and newcomers alike are unhappy.

Freshman Democratic Congressman Mark Takano of Riverside complains that big issues, such as the sequester and raising the debt ceiling, are being shuffled off to select groups without any input from the rank-and-file.

Takano says, at some point: "members of both parties have got to come to a realization that really who’s arrogated all the power are very, very few people – and it’s really to the detriment of Congress."

Ornstein says freshmen GOP members in the House are also unhappy. Usually, he says, Republicans vote as a block on procedural measures, but "that hasn’t happened on these rules, and the reason is many of the junior members are getting really pissed that the shutting off of amendments isn’t just shutting out the minority party, it’s shutting out the rank and file members."

A revolt from the bottom

Ornstein says we’re starting to see "a revolt from the bottom that is a real headache for the leaders."

Republican Congressman John Campbell of Irvine predicts a return to regular order  – at least at the back end of the budget debate, once both the House and Senate pass their own versions and the matter goes to a conference committee. He says it doesn't mean Democrats and Republicans will be able to reconcile the differences.

"But does it mean there will be a mechanism under the regular order of the United States Congress under which you deal with two bills that are different and try to bring them together in a single bill?" Campbell says. "Yeah, it does."

The legislator says a conference committee gives Democrats and Republicans the opportunity to figure out what the two sides can agree on.

Which is why Senator Barbara Boxer predicts that, despite the backroom discussions, an immigration bill will have to make its way slowly through the Senate Judiciary Committee before it shows up on the floor for a vote.

"At the end of the day, there will be regular order," Boxer says.

How long it’ll last is subject to debate. And that’s all these frustrated lawmakers want – a little open debate.

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