WASHINGTON — Smarting after a dozen years under iron-fisted Republican rule, House Democrats promised to do things differently and open up the institution when they regained majority control in 2007.
One of their changes was to allow any lawmaker to offer amendments to the voluminous spending bills once they hit the floor. Republicans seized the opportunity and put forth scores of politically charged proposals to alter a routine agriculture spending bill, bringing the debate to a virtual standstill. Democrats quickly reversed course and put limits on amendments.
Now the new House Republican majority is proposing to make institutional changes of their own as part of a rules package Speaker Kevin McCarthy negotiated with hard-right rebels in exchange for their support for his job. The handful of Republicans who are forcing the changes, which are scheduled to be considered on Monday, pointed to the rushed approval in December of a roughly $1.7 trillion spending bill to fund the entire government as an example of back-room legislating at its worst.
“What this rules package is designed to do is to stop what we saw happen literally 15 days ago, where the Democrats passed a $1.7 trillion monstrosity of a bill that spent the American taxpayers’ money in all kinds of crazy ways,” Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, said Sunday on Fox News. He said Republicans would require 72 hours to allow lawmakers to pore over any bill.
Part of the fight over the speakership was about the way Congress works, in particular the unwieldy “omnibus” spending bills that appear to materialize out of nowhere and with only minutes to spare.
But restoring any semblance of order and structure to the consideration of spending bills and other measures will prove to be extremely difficult with conservative Republicans in charge of the House and Democrats controlling the Senate and the White House. The new dynamic is more likely a prescription for shutdown and gridlock. The roots of dysfunction run deep.
Even lawmakers with long experience in trying to make Congress work acknowledged the collapse of what is called “regular order” — the civics class version of “how a bill becomes law” in getting legislation through the House and the Senate and signed by the president.
“We have clearly found new levels of inefficiency in the past decade — one big bill at the end of the year to fund the government, plus whatever the four leaders of the House and Senate can agree to add to it,” lamented Roy Blunt, the Republican senator from Missouri who retired this year after serving in the leadership of both the House and the Senate.
It wasn’t always this way. For most of its existence, Congress had a methodical approach to producing spending bills, which were the core of its workload, its major legislative responsibility as it exercised its vaunted power of the purse. Knowledgeable subcommittees in the House and the Senate would take detailed testimony from executive branch officials on what they needed, draft individual measures for each area of the government and hold line-by-line committee reviews of the bills.
Then they would move each bill across the floor of the House and the Senate one by one in the spring and summer, work out differences between the two chambers and get them signed by the president before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30 so the government wouldn’t be disrupted. The lawmakers who oversaw the appropriations subcommittees were labeled “cardinals,” reflecting the extent of their power, and jealously protected their control over their areas of the federal government. The spending panels were the place to be for lawmakers who wanted to exert influence.
Electing a New Speaker of the House
Representative Kevin McCarthy won the speakership after a revolt within the Republican Party set off a long stretch of unsuccessful votes.
But those days seem as distant as when bills were written with quill pens. Some of the foundational work still takes place as members of the appropriations panels — and, importantly, their staffs — assemble the bills, but the process is done with far less public review and transparency. And because it is so difficult to move individual pieces of legislation through both chambers — filibusters are the rule, no longer the exception, in the Senate — the measures are now almost always mashed together into giant packages.
Just six of the 12 separate appropriations bills were considered by the House last year, and none reached the Senate floor.
Instead, the senior members of the committees agreed among themselves what the “top line” spending number would be, worked out versions of the individual bills and then huddled with the leaders of the Senate and the House to get agreement on the final legislation in late December. Members were then faced with a take-it-or-leave-it proposition as the year came to a close, with the threat of much more time in Washington over the holidays and a crippling Christmas government shutdown being the alternative if they opted to leave it. The leadership added a few more bills seen as must-pass items to the mix, including an overhaul of the way presidential electoral votes are counted.
House Republicans stayed out of the machinations, though Senate Republicans had a large say since they were needed to provide enough votes to overcome a filibuster. It was a textbook case of legislating ugly, and House Republicans have vowed it will never happen again.
But there are explanations for why it happened, and one of them is the heightened partisanship in Congress. While the appropriations process always contained a dose of bipartisanship — and the appropriators were treated almost as a party unto themselves — that aura has faded as deeper polarization has taken hold.
Now the bills themselves have become a ripe target for political attacks when they reach the floor, leading both parties to restrict the opportunity to propose amendments to save their members from taking tough votes. The limits have chafed, and Republicans are promising to ease them. But it will make legislative life difficult, as Democrats discovered.
“What you have is filibuster by amendment,” said Representative Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat and former majority leader who is also a veteran member of the Appropriations Committee. “You have 435 members, and 435 amendments at 10 minutes will take you a long time.”
Congress doesn’t like to spend that kind of time legislating any more. At best, lawmakers are in town three or four days a week, and much of that period is spent away from the floor on fund-raising and other political activities. The idea of devoting hour after hour to slogging through amendments is anathema to many. In the Senate, the arcane rules mean it can take much longer to dispose of amendments without all senators agreeing — and unanimity is vanishingly rare.
The demise of earmarks, the pet projects lawmakers add to bills to steer federal money to their states and districts, was celebrated as a crackdown on “pork.” But the ban also contributed to making it much more difficult to pass spending bills the old-fashioned way. Banned in 2011, earmarks could no longer provide the grease for the appropriations skids, and advancing the bills separately became even more arduous. Earmarks made a return last year and were instrumental in providing the votes for approval of the huge spending bill, particularly among Republicans.
House Republicans plan to make it much more difficult to win earmarks. They also intend to make it much easier to cut spending and to force offsets in spending elsewhere to compensate for increases, a plan certain to encounter resistance from Democrats. And they want to couple any increase in the federal debt limit with corresponding federal spending cuts, an approach that almost caused an international economic calamity when Republicans newly installed in the House majority tried it in 2011.
“We will end wasteful Washington spending,” Mr. McCarthy promised early Saturday morning in his post-midnight victory speech.
Democrats don’t share the view of Mr. McCarthy and his colleagues of what constitutes wasteful federal spending. They already see collisions ahead, particularly if Republicans pursue domestic cuts without similar reductions in military spending.
Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, met Mr. McCarthy’s election with a warning that House Republicans are likely to “cause a government shutdown or a default with devastating consequences to our country.”
Republicans are already talking about a spending freeze or keeping the government running under a “continuing resolution” with automatic cuts if lawmakers cannot find agreement. It is going to be a real struggle to find common ground. And though Mr. Blunt was discouraged by the decline in the way Congress has operated, he warned that there is an even darker alternative.
“The only thing worse than the way we do it would be not doing it,” he told his colleagues in his parting speech. “The only thing worse than the way we do it is just to decide not to get our work done and see what happens.”