Rob Douglas: Return to regular order
December 28, 2012
Steamboat Springs — Across the globe, Americans awaken each day and set out to tackle the responsibilities and challenges of their jobs in order to provide financial and physical security for their families and their country. From the miners who work underground to provide coal for electricity, to the ranchers and farmers who toil from sunup to sundown to provide food for our plates, to the men and women of our armed forces who risk their lives overseas to provide security for us at home, we are a nation that thrives when each of us performs our job to the best of our ability.
Given that Americans traditionally value those who work hard, it’s difficult to fathom why we tolerate the ongoing refusal by our elected representatives in Washington, D.C. to exert the effort needed to successfully tackle the challenges and responsibilities of their jobs — even when the constant evasion of those responsibilities is demonstrably harming a national economy that is just beginning to show small indications of improvement.
On Wednesday we learned that because of the repeated failures by President Barack Obama and Congress to conduct the nation’s financial affairs in a timely manner that is in keeping with their constitutional and legal obligations, our country will “hit the debt ceiling” on the same day we’ve been warned for months that we’ll potentially “go off the fiscal cliff” — Jan. 1.
Happy New Year!
Only in America can our elected officials manage to simultaneously mangle the economy and the lexicon on a day normally set aside for the optimism that comes with cracking the binding on a new calendar.
Given the stench of incompetence emanating from both ends of a 16-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, it’s no wonder that the Conference Board reported this week that its consumer-confidence index for December dropped to the lowest level since November 2011. Not surprisingly, the steep month-over-month slide from this November – 80.9 to 66.5 – is reminiscent of what happened the last time Congress was up against the debt ceiling in August 2011.
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Arguably, a seemingly endless series of Washington-induced fiscal crises is what happens when just three individuals — the president, the Senate majority leader and the Speaker of the House — continually thwart the regular order process that served Congress and the executive branch well for several hundred years before being jettisoned in recent decades by leaders of both political parties.
In July, former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, currently the director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, wrote about this problem in a piece titled “Why Congress’s future should lie in the past.” Hamilton reminds us that under regular order, a bill is brought “before a committee, whose members listen to what witnesses have to say and then argue over amendments to the bill both in committee and on the floor. Then a final version gets debated before being sent over to the other body, where the entire process gets repeated. Finally, the two versions get reconciled in a conference committee before the measure goes on to the president.”
Most Americans, having studied how a bill becomes federal law as school children, believe this is how Congress operates. Not so. Currently, most bills, including those concerning the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling, never see the light of day — much less the House or Senate floor — until they’ve been cooked by the congressional leadership and White House aides behind closed doors. The bill is then presented to the 535 members of the House and Senate as a fait accomplis for an immediate vote with no opportunity for meaningful deliberation or amendments.
In short, the current process destroys the very essence of a representative democracy by denying a majority of our representatives the opportunity to achieve lasting, bipartisan consensus by debating matters of national importance in an open and transparent manner on the floor of the House and Senate.
It is time that Americans demand that the nation’s business be conducted publicly by all members of the House and Senate — not by a few so-called leaders behind locked doors.
It is time to demand a return to regular order.