Once upon a time, legend has it, the United States Senate could work. While lost in the mists of time, the exact way the Senate worked apparently had to do with something called, “regular order.”
This “regular order” went something like this. The Majority Leader calls up a piece of legislation. The clerk begins to read the legislation. The Majority Leader asks unanimous consent that further reading of the bill be dispensed with. The Majority Leader turns to the majority manager of the legislation, often the chairman of the committee that reported out the legislation. After opening statements by both the majority and minority managers of the bill, a Senator was free to offer an amendment.
Then, miracles of miracles, the amendment was debated and voted on.
Next, another amendment might emerge from another Senator. And, so on. That was “regular order.”
At the end of this logical pattern, all amendments having been dealt with, the Senate would vote on the final legislation, as amended, if amended.
Sometimes this process took weeks, sometimes a full month or more, depending upon the scope and nature of the legislation. Sometimes it took ten minutes.
The old saying, “That boy could screw up a one-car funeral,” comes to mind to describe the United States Senate of today.
The present state of annual appropriations illustrates the complete breakdown of the Senate mechanism.
Fiscal Year 2012 has begun. As the Constitution makes perfectly clear, no monies can be spent in the absence of an appropriations. Yet, not a single FY 2012 appropriations bill has passed the House and Senate and gone to conference. Under the recently-passed Budget Control Act, the caps on spending for the next two years is crystal clear. One would think that since top-line numbers are the same in the House and Senate, appropriations (for the first time in eons) would be relatively easy to pass into law.
That thinking would be wrong.
Why? Because “regular order” as outlined above has some very unpleasant consequences. It makes Senators vote. Worse, it makes them vote sometimes on issues they would rather ignore. When Republicans were in control, Democrats devised amendments on “tough” subjects. Now that Democrats are in control, Republicans do the same thing.
Both caucuses react the same way—we don’t want to. So the Majority Leaders of the past decade or so have done all they can to avoid allowing such amendments. Under regular order, those amendments occur. Under the new normal of disorder, those amendments can be at least side-stepped for a while.
Of course, that means that appropriations bills once again fail to pass. It means that we suffer another round of Continuing Resolutions, Omnibus or Mini-bus appropriations measures, and the periodic threat of a government “shutdown.”
While the Senate figures out ways to avoid voting on anything that might possibly become a nasty 30-second commercial next election season, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also spawned by the Budget Control Act, still cannot agree on what baseline it will use to calculate the size of any spending restraint or tax increases it might recommend by the November 23 deadline.
So: the Senate won’t vote, the Select Committee doesn’t know what to cut from, and at least five of the would-be GOP nominees for President seem to wander around in an alternative universe during these endless debates.
Wonder why Congress has a 12 per cent favorable rating.