Editorial October 30, 2015

TheWeekinCongress.com

Editorial

An eclectic week on Capitol Hill where both bodies seemed to be moving forward on some important legislation to include the bipartisan budget deal that also raises the debt limit.

Passage of the budget bill tells us several things; that  compromise is achievable despite threats from the conservative House Freedom Caucus’s 30 or 40 Members and the belief that we were heading for another government shutdown and all that would follow. Although a shutdown remains a possibility as long as it remains an option to some Members.

It shows us that Leadership can and did work together to break up the potential logjams threatened by some Members. The bill was created by Boehner and Pelosi in the House and Reid and McConnell in the Senate and the White House and is seen by some as an end run around the rank and file. It is, and is what was necessary to stop this threatening nonsense and get back to running the country.

Their actions highlighted the problem and found a solution giving Americans clarity from Congress this week; the week’s work got the job done with balanced legislation, short on gimmicks. Above all, they got the job done.

On the sidelines this week, but the central player next, is the new Speaker. The question is will Paul Ryan continue this week of clarity? The (former Speaker) Dennis Hastert Rule is in place requiring a bill to have sufficient Republican votes before it can be brought to the floor tightening the grip on what gets done. Ryan has a history of proposing extremely austere budget’s then ending up the other half of the Murray/Ryan compromise budget, so we’re not clear on where he will be coming from. And we should expect that from him; not just the Speaker, Ryan is now third in line for the presidency. Clarity from someone in that position is appropriate and would be welcome.

Quotes on the Issues

On the Budget Deal –

“This bill replaces the sequester, that ill-advised policy that is hurting our country. It replaces it for two years and does so with parity for defense and non-defense sequester relief. It protects Medicare Part B beneficiaries from seeing higher premiums, and it saves the Social Security Disability Insurance Program from insolvency. All of those are worthwhile objectives.” House Minority Whip’s Office

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he will support the budget deal because “it restores all but $5 billion of the defense requirements.” He said if the budget agreement passes he could move quickly to adjust and pass the National Defense Authorization Act that was recently vetoed by President Obama over budget concerns. Senator John McCain

On the Ex-Im Bank Reauthorization

“House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) was right about one thing: The majority of Republicans on his committee were opposed to the Export-Import Bank. But they were actually in the minority when it comes to how GOP House members voted overall; 127 Republicans, or more than half the conference, voted to renew the bank. Ex-Im cleared the House with in a 313-118 tally — an impressive showing for a bill that couldn’t even make it through committee.”    –    Politico, 10/28/2015 Via Minority Whip’s Office

“The House Tuesday approved the reauthorization of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, with a majority of Republicans joining almost all Democrats to demonstrate a broad bipartisan coalition to revive the export-finance agency. The measure passed 313-118. More than half of the House’s 247 Republicans—127 in all—voted to renew the bank’s charter.”   –    Wall Street Journal, 10/27/2015

Hamilton on Congress

Congress’s Problems are Deep-Seated but Fixable

“All this attention on the crises of the moment suggests that resolving them will fix Congress. It won’t.”

by Lee. H. Hamilton

Hamilton

Hamilton

A lot of ink is being spilled about the speakership drama in the U.S. House, the demands by members of the conservative Freedom Caucus, and the turmoil besetting the Republicans who run Capitol Hill. There is a pervasive sense in Washington that Congress has gone, at least temporarily, off the rails.

Even members of Congress are saying it. “I think the House is bordering on ungovernable right now,” one prominent Republican told NBC earlier this month. I’ve been around congressional politics for over 50 years, and I can’t ever remember hearing a member of Congress say such a thing.

All this attention on the crises of the moment suggests that resolving them will fix Congress. It won’t. There are three deep-seated issues that have to be addressed before Congress can play a constructive role in sustaining our place in the world and tackling the tough economic and social issues we face at home.

The first sounds simple, but it is not: Congress should work its will by letting its members vote on the major issues of the day. In legislatures, whoever controls procedure usually controls results. In Congress, leaders – and sometimes followers – in both parties for years have manipulated the process to get the results they want.

Omnibus bills and continuing resolutions are part of this. Leaders try to avoid tough issues if their caucus members don’t want to vote on them. The 60-vote requirement to avoid a filibuster in the Senate plays a role. So does the “Hastert Rule” in the House, under which a majority of the majority caucus has to give its approval before a measure moves forward.

These all carry a cost. Crucial issues facing the American people don’t get addressed. Congress moves from crisis to crisis. Americans give up on the institution. And members get frustrated when they can’t vote on issues they know their constituents want Congress to address. Giving members of the House and the Senate a fair shot at addressing the nation’s challenges would deal Congress back into the policy-making arena.

Second, Congress over the years has developed several bad habits that it needs to fix. These include huge bills that become vehicles for special-interest provisions and leadership wish-lists; bypassing the committee process; concentrating power in the leaders; curbing the participation of most members; and limiting debates and amendments.

The most pernicious of these is the practice of legislating by omnibus bills. These consist of hundreds of provisions, usually drafted in the dead of night by leadership staff – not members of Congress – brought to the floor with scant time for anyone to read them, limited time for debate, and few amendments allowed. They’re usually timed to come up just before a key deadline on a single up-or-down vote, so that the leadership can threaten a government shutdown if the bill fails.

The sad part here is that there are a lot of members who’ve never known anything different. An entire generation on Capitol Hill thinks that bills they had no part in shaping, are unable to debate, and have no choice but to pass are the way Congress runs.

It’s not. There’s another way, and it brings me to my third point. We have over 200 years of experience on Capitol Hill that have taught us how to run a legislature so that the voice of the people can be better heard, multiple viewpoints get considered, and ordinary legislators get a fair shot at influencing the results. It’s called the “regular order,” and it involves committees with authority holding hearings, debating issues, and reporting bills to the floor, where members get several chances to shape the legislation through amendments. The regular order requires negotiation and compromise, and gives members a fair crack at crafting policy for the nation.

The American people want Congress to work. They don’t expect a solution to everything, and they certainly don’t expect miracles. But they do expect a Congress that tries to make progress and that’s capable of developing creative approaches to the major problems of the day. The frustration for me is that we know how to do things better with a time-tested process, but members of Congress simply ignore it.

Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.