Something strange is happening on Capitol Hill these days.
Committee leaders from the House and Senate are meeting face-to-face to try to iron out differences in their competing bills.
Just this week, a bipartisan House-Senate conference committee began talks in search of a compromise spending package to keep the government running for the 11 months remaining in the new fiscal year. At the same time, House and Senate negotiators began long-delayed public talks Wednesday aimed at striking a deal on a new farm bill covering government subsidies, crop insurance, conservation, energy and food stamps.
Some are even speculating that the Senate and House might get together before the year is out to try to fashion immigration reform legislation – although that may be a bridge too far in light of the sharp ideological and political differences between the two parties.
There was a time when high-profile meetings like these would be relatively common place. “Regular order” on Capitol Hill dictated a ritual in which the two chambers regularly came together to hammer out differences on a wide range of fiscal, domestic and foreign policy issues before scheduling final votes on compromise legislation.
Since the GOP won back control of the House in 2010, however, Congress and the Obama administration have been operating well outside of regular order. Instead, they have skipped from one crisis to another to produce two near-defaults on the U.S. debt, a deficit-reduction package that many regret because it created the sequester, a last-minute spending and tax deal to avoid a “fiscal cliff” in early January and a 16-day government shutdown last month.
GETTING REAL ON BUDGET NUMBERS
House Speaker John Boehner’s refusal until now to negotiate a budget blueprint for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 has also hampered the Senate and House Appropriations Committees from passing the dozen spending bills needed to operate the government. House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) repeatedly chided House GOP leaders for insisting on unrealistically low spending levels for a host of domestic agencies and programs including transportation and housing.
Yesterday, Rogers and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) made a rare joint appeal to the budget conference committee to give them an answer before Thanksgiving on what the topline will be for discretionary spending over the coming year. The budget negotiators are currently operating under a Dec. 13 deadline to report back to Congress with recommendations. Mikulski and Rogers fear this is too late for them to respond effectively.
The recent shift by lawmakers back to a more traditional – and less chaotic and confrontational—legislative process may stem in part from combat fatigue and concern about voter outrage with both parties for repeatedly taking the government and its credit rating to the brink.
Some budget experts said they were encouraged by these recent developments, although they remain skeptical that even regular order can bridge the differences between the two parties and the two chambers over spending, entitlements, taxes, agriculture and other issues.
“The fact that they finally called a conference between the House and Senate Budget Committees – very much after the fact – was I thought a step forward,” said Steve Bell of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a former Republican Senate adviser. “The fact that they’re now in conference on the AG bill is a step forward also.”
“Maybe – and I don’t want to be overly optimistic – the events of the last three years and the distress that the appropriators have over not being able to get individuals bills may compel more tendency towards regular order in the next session,” he added.
Joseph Minarik, a former Clinton administration budget official, cautioned that “We may have regular order without anything actually being accomplished at the end of the day.”
“And it’s also not clear whether one would characterize a budget resolution conference occurring 31 days into the fiscal year in question as being regular order,” said Minarik.
The 22 senators and seven House members on the new special conference committee met for the first time Wednesday and pledged to work across party lines to fund federal departments and avoid another government shutdown early next year. Yet both sides agreed it would be difficult to overcome sharp differences on taxes, entitlement reform and replacing the across the board cuts under the sequester.
“It won’t be easy,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA). “It will require both sides to step out of our comfort zones and ideological corners.”
FARM BILL STILL ON THE HARVEST TABLE
Meanwhile, other senators and House members met Wednesday to begin resolving differences over their dueling farm bills. House Agriculture Committee chief Frank D. Lucas (R-OK) admonished his fellow negotiators: “Let’s not take years to get it done.”
The concept of “regular order” is a nebulous one that has changed with the times. Traditionally it has meant playing by the rules and relying heavily on the byzantine congressional committee structure to shape the legislation and spending and tax measures that reach the floor.
More broadly, it means granting members leeway to offer amendments, getting budgets passed on time and allowing the appropriations committees adequate time to write their bills.
The turning point came after Newt Gingrich and his band of Republican revolutionaries swept to power in 1994. Shortly after he was ensconced as Speaker, Gingrich stripped the House committee chairmen of much of their power and autonomy. Gingrich and other top GOP leaders largely dictated legislative policy and tactics – including leading their members into two government shutdowns in late 1995 and early 1996.
“It was a disaster,” recalls Bell. “Once the Speaker was able to essentially appoint chairmen or ranking minority members and it was no longer based on seniority, and all that power devolved to the Speaker, everything changed. Everything became irregular.”