(Written by Evan Soltas)
Some fun news this morning for budget wonks. ”Leader Reid is very likely to ask for consent to move to conference [this] morning,” e-mails a Democratic Senate aide. “We will see if Senate Republicans who have talked about regular order will actually stick to that and allow us to move to conference or if they will drag their feet and provide cover for House Republicans who want to drag their feet on negotiations.”
If that means nothing to you — and, if you’re a halfway normal human being, it shouldn’t mean anything to you — then perhaps we should back up.
For the last two years, congressional Republicans have argued that the real problem in the budget debate is that Democrats have abandoned “regular order.” By regular order, Republicans mean — well, I’ll let Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, explain it.
“Secret deals have not worked and are an affront to popular democracy,” he argued in January. “The right process is the regular order. The House produces its budget–as it has–and the Senate passes its budget, all in accordance with the Budget Act of 1974. Under that law, the Senate Budget Committee must approve a budget resolution by April 1st. From there, the law requires the budget to be considered on the Senate floor where it must receive 50 hours of open amendment and debate. A budget cannot be filibustered and is adopted by a simple majority in both committee and the full Senate. Then, once the issues and differences are clarified by this open process, the work of conferencing must begin.”
Got that? The House should pass a budget, the Senate should pass a budget, and then the two chambers should head to conference to work out the differences between the two budgets — all of it out in the open. No more of these backroom negotiations. Let Congress work as Congress was intended to work.
Regular order has achieved a totemic significance on the right. Bringing it back by forcing Senate Democrats to pass a budget was, in fact, the lure that House Speaker John Boehner and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan used to convince their colleagues to raise the debt ceiling.
“The good news is that we now have a vehicle for regular order,” Ryan exulted in March. “Democrats derailed the budget process when they gave up governing a few years ago. Nearly four years without a budget. We brought them back in the game this spring. That is a good thing.”
But a funny thing happened after Senate Democrats passed their budget: House Republicans, it seemed, weren’t that eager to move to regular order after all. There’s been no evident interest in the next move, which is appointing conferees to begin reconciling the two budgets. “It seems to us they want to slow this down, keep it in the back rooms, keep it quiet, because there's no advantage to them in having a formal public process,” said one Democratic aide.
In fact, Republicans see a disadvantage in a formal public process. “If you appoint conferees and after 20 legislative days there's no agreement, the minority has the right to offer motions to instruct, which become politically motivated bombs that show up on the House floor," Boehner told reporters.
Senate Democrats don’t find this a very convincing excuse: They note that they had to vote on dozens of Republican amendments – many of which were designed to embarrass them.
House Republicans instead want a private agreement — a “framework” — that would direct the conference committee as they attempt to reconcile the budgets. “What we want to do is have constructive dialogues to find out where the common ground is and go to conference when we have a realistic chance of coming out with an agreement,” Ryan told reporters. There’s precedent for this sort of thing. But it’s not what’s traditionally meant by “regular order.” Rather, it’s a return to the precise kind of backroom, leadership-driven dealmaking Republicans have spent so much time assailing.
And Senate Democrats aren’t having it. After years of Republicans complaining about secret deals and hammering Senate Democrats for betraying regular order, they’re calling the GOP’s bluff. That’s why Reid intends to move towards conference this morning. Either Republicans will agree, and regular order will proceed — which will likely mean no deal, and which will then give House Democrats a chance to throw their bombs — or Senate Republicans will filibuster, and that will be the end of the regular order talking point.
But that’s all political theatre. However it works out, the point is more than proven. What’s holding up a budget deal isn’t disagreements over the process. It’s disagreements over the budget.