Is this what a return to regular order looks like? Really?
Many recall the dramatic moment last July when Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), with fresh scars from cancer surgery on his brow, scuppered his own party’s efforts to destroy the Affordable Care Act with a late-night thumbs-down on the Senate floor. McCain then made a lonely plea for Congress to return to “regular order.”
This phrase gauzily evokes bygone days of bipartisanship, when legislators supposedly worked together behind the scenes to advance the national good. To some, this recalls the 1980s, when Tip O’Neill was Speaker of the House. To others, it calls to mind the era of cigar-chomping dealmakers like Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson.
But what McCain had in mind, specifically, was for each side in our current Congressional impasse to retreat from their ramparts, and allow bipartisan committees to regain their fundamental work of crafting legislation, which would then be debated and amended, in public view, on the floors of the House and Senate.
“We might not like the compromises regular order requires, but we can and must live with them if we are to find real and lasting solutions,” McCain said at the time. “And all of us in Congress have the duty, in this sharply polarized atmosphere, to defend the necessity of compromise before the American public.”
McCain is not the only GOP lawmaker who lays claim to “regular order.” Even Paul Ryan made it the centerpiece of his ascension to Speaker in 2015. “Open up the process,” he said. “When we do not follow regular order — when we rush to pass bills a lot of us do not understand — we are not doing our job. Only a fully functioning House can truly represent the people.”
But talk, especially from Ryan, is cheap. In December the GOP rushed a $1.5 trillion tax giveaway into law. That bill was so hastily written and full of lobbyists’ last-minute scribbles that few lawmakers, including McCain, read it before voting it through.
Having gotten what they first came to town for – massive tax cuts for themselves and their billionaire donors - three dozen of these GOP lawmakers, including nine committee chairs, then decided it was high time to retire and live off the fat of the land.
In January, we endured a three-day government shutdown, sparked by the Senate’s refusal to consider offering legal status to DREAMers. These are 800,000 immigrants brought to this country as children who, after strict background checks, were granted temporary approval to live and work in this country by President Obama. President Trump abruptly ended their protections in October, sending thousands of these DREAMers into limbo or deportation.
Last Monday, we were back at the brink of another shutdown, this time over Ryan’s refusal in the House to consider any of the several bills that have been put forward to offer new status for DREAMers. So much for regular order.
Act One: Out of the Blue
Then, seemingly out of the blue, came news that Senate leaders had secretly worked out a deal to not only keep government open, but to restore funding to vital social programs, disaster aid and expand both defense and non-defense spending for the next two years. What was going on here?
“After months of fiscal brinkmanship, this budget deal is the first real sprout of bipartisanship,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer effused to the New York Times. Indeed, on the face of it, the deal seemed to offer Democrats a chance to extract more in than they might have ever hoped from the locked-down GOP, with one exception: there was no solution for the DREAMers.
Over in the House, this Kumbaya moment put Nancy Pelosi in a bind. She couldn’t easily walk back her promise to hold the line for DREAMers after advocating loudly for them for months, especially since Ryan had refused to even allow debate in the House on any solution to their status.
So Pelosi staged a remarkable act of political theater: for more than eight hours, she held the floor of the House, reading from the Bible and hundreds of personal stories from DREAMers, saying she would lead House Democrats to vote against the budget pact.
There’s only one problem: Pelosi was well aware of the Senate’s “surprise” compromise, and indeed had played an important role in negotiating the pact. And knowing the deal could not easily be matched through piecemeal negotiations, she also knew many of her colleagues would not stand in the way of its passage.
Act Two: Tilting at Windmills
Pelosi’s defiance was to be only the first act in this play: not to be upstaged, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) led his own lonely protest in the Senate, holding up the budget bill with his insistence that spending caps be reinstated. He also complained no one had read the 700-page bill, which was only released to the Senate at midnight on Wednesday.
“When Republicans are in power, it seems there is no conservative party,” said Paul on the Senate floor. “The hypocrisy hangs in the air and chokes anyone with a sense of decency or intellectual honesty."
He failed in this bid, but did succeed in forcing a shutdown, this time only hours-long, with the Senate sending the bill over to the House where it ultimately passed with 73 Democratic votes at 5:30 in the morning. President Trump then signed the bill into law at 8:40, ending what Politico called “the dumbest shutdown ever.”
You have to feel for both Pelosi and Paul. Both were, in essence, left high and dry by their parties, who had in turn abandoned their ideals. And with no other recourse, they could only make their Quixotic pleas to the court of public opinion.
Cause for Celebration?
There is much, in theory, to like in this budget deal: the boost to domestic spending includes ten years of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), $3 billion to combat the opioid crisis, $10 billion for infrastructure, $2 billion on higher education, $2 billion for veterans and $2.9 billion on childcare. All in theory.
But the truth is this ballyhooed deal is only really another stopgap measure, one that keeps government in business for another six weeks, until March 23. By that point lawmakers must pass an “omnibus” spending bill that fleshes out how all of this money will actually be spent. Intense lobbying has already started behind the scenes to grab pieces of this gargantuan pie.
And don’t expect Paul Ryan and White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to walk away from their long-standing ideological goals of entitlement reform, such as welfare-to-work requirements, or other cuts to social spending; they’ll try to inject as much of that as they can to the final version of the deal.
At What Price?
What’s the real price of this deal to Democrats? What’s in it for Republicans?
Above all else, the deal offers the GOP political cover, a sheen of governability. After careening from one unpopular crisis to the next for a year, they can now – they hope, with this extra economic stimulus – coast into midterms at the helm of a booming economy and record-low unemployment.
Indeed, having jettisoned any pretense of fiscal responsibility, the GOP is arguing that deficits no longer matter - we’ll grow ourselves out of the hole, they say. And Democrats, by tacitly accepting the terms of this package, may have unwittingly undermined their own best argument against Republicans in midterms.
Final Act: The DREAMers
Which brings us to the DREAMers. All of these theatrics did extract a bleary-eyed pledge from Paul Ryan to bring some kind of immigration bill to the floor of the House, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised to open debate on immigration this week.
“To anyone who doubts my intention to solve this problem and bring up a DACA and immigration reform bill, do not,” said Ryan. As if he’s never given us reason to doubt before.
Democrats do still have a chance to stand up for what they believe, and demand a solution for DREAMers. They could even force a new shutdown in six weeks’ time, if they don’t get one. But having already cut a deal with Republicans, their leverage may now be largely gone, and they've already shown their willingness to walk away from an endangered minority rather than risk a position that might turn out to be unpopular with mainstream voters.
So now all they, we, and the DREAMers can count on is that elusive promise - from unreliable counterparts - for a “return to regular order.”