Regular Order, Meet Schadenfreude

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Regular order. For the past few months, it’s been a Republican byword, the potential cure to all that ails Washington. “The right process is the regular order,” Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, said in a statement this past January. “A second term presents the opportunity to do things differently, and in the Senate that means a return to regular order,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor earlier this year. “I believe that it’s time to do regular order,” House Speaker John Boehner told ABC News in March.

The ceaseless parade of commissions, super committees, and gangs of six and eight could be traced back to the lack of a Democratic budget for these regular-order evangelicals. After all, Senate Democrats hadn't even managed to propose a budget since the first year of Barack Obama's presidency.

For the latest issue of the Prospect, Jamelle Bouie and I profiled Patty Murray, the senior senator from Washington state who took over as chair of the Senate Budget Committee at the start of the year. It was an unenviable spot. Unlike her predecessor Kent Conrad, Murray was determined to produce a budget within the first few months at the gavel. She didn't have much choice in the matter either: Republicans had demanded a new Democratic budget as a precondition before agreeing to increase the debt ceiling at the end of January. But Murray managed to marshal the competing elements of her party and pass a budget through an all-night voting session in the middle of March by a slim 50-49 vote. While the GOP voted against it en bloc, many Republicans praised Murray for at least getting operations back to normal. "I just want to commend Senator Murray … for conducting an open, complete, and full debate," McConnell said on the floor just before the budget's passage. "I know everyone is exhausted and you may not feel it at the moment, but this is one of the Senate's finest days in recent years."

In late April when I asked Paul Ryan, Murray's counterpart as the House GOP's budget leader, if he expected to soon sit across the table from Murray at a conference committee, he said, "I assume. I do expect ultimately we will."

But despite being avowed regular-order groupies, Republicans haven’t followed through. Once both sides of Congress passed their budgets, both parties should have appointed representatives to a conference committee—a series of meetings where the two sides would hash out the differences between the competing budgets. Ryan and Murray spoke regularly throughout March and April to discuss forming a conference committee, but Ryan refused to cede ground and start the process. The conservatives in his party have stopped Republicans from beginning official negotiations until Democrats agree to give up on tax increases and raising the debt ceiling through the conference committee.

Congress can, of course, continue to operate without ever approving a budget resolution, as they've done for the past several years. All they need to do is pass another continuing resolution when government funding expires in October. Democrats hate this patchwork approach; it would likely cement sequestration cuts for yet another year.

Left with no other options as House Republicans dilly-dallied and refused to appoint conferees, Harry Reid asked for unanimous consent to begin selecting members for the conference committee, only to be blocked. “After giving the Republicans what they said they wanted, regular order, countless votes and passage of a budget resolution, a strange thing happened: House Republicans did a complete 180,” Reid said in frustration when Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey blocked his request in late April. “They flipped. They’re no longer interested in regular order.” Since then, Murray has marched onto the Senate floor nine times to request a move toward conference, only to be stymied by GOP senators.

When I spoke with Ryan in April he seemed pessimistic about reaching any deal through a conference committee. "I don’t expect a grand bargain, which is, a grand bargain presumably fixes the entirety of our problem," he said. Per Ryan's explanation, Murray's budget doesn't even qualify under the grand-bargain rubric, since it fails to close the full deficit within the next decade like his proposal. "A grand bargain to me," Ryan said, "means Medicare is solvent, Social Security is solvent, the debt crisis is permanently averted—or at least for a generation—the budget is balanced." Ryan argued that he would not be satisfied unless Democrats caved to major cuts in entitlement reform. "Discretionary spending is not the problem, it's the mandatory spending that is the big driver of debt in the future, and we haven't done anything on that."

“It will take nothing short of a political miracle," Illinois Senator and Murray confidant Dick Durbin told me in March when describing his hopes for a full budget deal with House Republicans.11Senator Angus King, the mustachioed independent from Maine who sits on the Budget Committee, explained the problem to me with a typical folksy comparison: "Nothing is going to happen unless the parties want something to happen. If you enter into a negotiation about a car, the premise is that they want to sell and you want to buy. If that's the premise, you can reach a deal on buying a car, maybe or maybe not but you at least have a chance. If you enter into a negotiation to buy a car and the seller doesn't want to sell his car, then no matter what you do, it's not going to happen. It really is going to turn on what the motivations of the parties are going into the discussions."

Even if prospects for a comprehensive budget deal are slim, Democrats aren't going to cede defeat now that they've finally managed to pass a budget resolution. They at least want to hold Republicans to their past calls for regular order. They still cling to the hope that, when forced to negotiate through the official channels, they can find a common ground with Republicans to replace the recovery-hampering sequestration cuts. Should that fail, the Democrats at least believe the politics of debating at a conference committee favor their side, as it would be yet another venue to highlight Paul Ryan's extreme measures to reinvent the social safety net.

Murray's request for a budget conference was blocked yet again last week, but the Republican resistance finally began to show fissures. At the end of the day last Tuesday, Republican Senators John McCain and Susan Collins blasted their colleagues from the Senate floor, challenging the Tea Party-likes of Rand Paul and Ted Cruz to end their objections. McCain and Collins highlighted the sudden reversal in rhetoric from other members of their party, a shift Collins termed "ironic." According to McCain, the refusal to grant a conference was "absolutely out of line and unprecedented."

"We have called repeatedly for a return to regular order in this body," Collins chimed in. "Well, regular order is going to conference.” Both senators rightfully explained that a conference wouldn't disadvantage Republicans, since Ryan and his acolytes from the House GOP would dominate half of the committee.

But even if McCain and Collins manage to cajole their Senate colleagues into granting a motion toward conference, it will mean squat unless House Republicans cave. "We understand that we come from very different philosophical premises," Ryan told me last month, "but it's our jobs to try and find out where the common ground lies." That common ground occupies a tiny patch of the entire budget landscape, and there's no reason to see it expanding anytime soon. 

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