In Praise of Regular Order

I was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in a special election in September 1977. Were I still in Congress today, I would be senior to every other sitting member of the House. Forty-six years as a member and as a close observer of the institution leads me to the conclusion that Congress is broken. The vision of James Madison enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the most important document in the world second only to the Bible, has been blurred, distorted, and almost forgotten.

Partisanship has eclipsed any thought of working together in the interest of the nation. Party loyalty is sacrosanct and any deviation in either party is frowned upon and sanctioned. Gone are the days when members of Congress could reach across the aisle to produce legislation founded on common sense rather than sheer party dogma. “Negotiation” does not equate with “capitulation.” But insistence on “my way or the highway” often yields what we have seen too often in recent years: nothing . . . or much worse.

It’s difficult to determine exactly where the problems began. Democrats became arrogant in their 40 years of virtual control of the House of Representatives and almost equal domination of the U.S. Senate. They suffered a cataclysmic fit when, in 1995, Newt Gingrich led Republicans to seize control of the House. Their outrage compelled them to file over 200 frivolous ethics complaints against the new speaker, yet Republicans were successful in restraining President Bill Clinton’s profligate agenda leading him to declare, “The era of big government is over.” 

The nation benefited as the Republican Congress worked with the Democratic controlled White House to restrain spending and ultimately balance the discretionary budget for the first time in decades and for the last time in modern history. But mandatory entitlement spending was left unrestrained and is today the chief cause of our nation’s ongoing march to fiscal disaster.

The future of America is uncertain. Numerous columns and opinion letters are written every day in the press proclaiming that the end is near. I don’t believe them to be true, but our government does need drastic overhaul. The politicization of our executive agencies is untenable. The Biden Administration ignores the many thousands of people pouring over our borders from all around the world bringing drug trafficking, sex trade, and threats of terrorism to every town in America. 

Our fiscal agenda has lost any connection with reality. Inflation is at a 40-year high and rising interest rates threaten our fiscal integrity. “Wokeism” has radiated from our colleges and universities to our elementary and high schools as well as to our government agencies, even to our Defense Department.

These trends cannot stand, and they must be reversed. God willing, 2024 will provide a change of administration in the White House and a new direction for the country. Only the American people will determine if that can happen. But Congress can begin the changes today. The Republicans have retaken control of the House albeit with an incredibly thin majority. My message to them is simply, “Do not repeat the mistakes of your predecessors!”

Much has been written about the effectiveness of Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as speaker. Granted, she was a very successful autocrat. A true believer in her leftist agenda, Pelosi emasculated the committee process and took full control over all legislation so that no bills or amendments were allowed on the floor without her endorsement. She rarely if ever worked with the Republican minority. 

Pelosi’s unfettered support from the president and the entire executive branch of government; the endless money showered on her by Silicon Valley in her home state of California; and the adoring bleating of sycophantic journalists who were in philosophical lockstep with Pelosi’s agenda—all these enabled her to command absolute loyalty from her fellow Democrats regardless of how they might have personally felt about her radical left-wing agenda.

Pelosi wasn’t the only speaker to abuse the system in recent years, but she refined her abuse to an art form. Speaker Denny Hastert (R-Ill.) may have begun the process when he imposed the “Hastert rule” requiring a majority vote of the Republican conference prior to allowing committee legislation to proceed to the Rules Committee and/or the House floor. 

Much later, under Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), the “Freedom Caucus,” a rump group of some 40 members strong, demanded an even greater percentage of consent by their members before any of them would vote for specific legislation. Many of them refused to ever vote for “must pass” annual appropriations bills, meaning that Boehner and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) had no choice but to negotiate with Democrats for votes to pass funding for the cost of government inclusive of defense.

The process became so cumbersome for leaders of both parties that the appropriations bills became too difficult to pass so they reserved action until the last minute. Instead of passing smaller more manageable bills in the historically accepted process, they began combining all 12 appropriations bills into single “omnibus” bills in packages of thousands of indecipherable pages. Failing that, continuing resolutions or “CRs” became the frequent fall back. CRs are the worst of all options in that they simply repeat what was done in the preceding year, adding new spending authority to compensate for inflation without sufficient oversight, attention, or change in detail regardless of waste or genuine need. Omnibus bills and CRs serve to disenfranchise individual members and deny their constituents input to the legislative process.

The American legislative process is broken. It can be fixed, but only if leaders on both sides work together to make it happen. Philosophical positions need not be abandoned but they must be contained within a process readily foreseen by James Madison.

Few current members of Congress understand the term “regular order.” But when I came to Congress under Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), regular order meant something, and it worked. Members of both parties were most certainly partisans, but the system restrained them from their worst excesses. It’s time to restore regular order. 

To that end, I offer the following list of suggestions:

1) The speaker of the House, the third highest-ranking officer of the land, should be the speaker for the whole House, not just his or her respective party. Certainly, the speaker is a partisan, but partisanship should be conducted by the majority and minority leaders. The speaker not only represents his or her party; but he or she represents the Congress and the nation. The speaker owes it to the country to provide dignity and respect to the House. When Pelosi tore up President Trump’s State of the Union speech, she embarrassed herself, her party, the Congress, and the nation. It was a shameful act.

2) Committee chairman together with their minority ranking members should hold oversight hearings and guide legislation from their subcommittees and committees through the Rules Committee to the floor of the House. They should not be dictated to by the speaker or any member of leadership. Their product should be evaluated and passed on by the Rules Committee, comprised of 12 members, seven for the majority appointed by the speaker, and five for the minority appointed by the minority leader. Rules Committee members should heed the wishes of the respective parties, but they should exert independent judgment in place of rubber-stamp adherence to leadership directives.

3) No committee should be comprised of more than 50 members and no member should serve on more than two committees nor a total of six subcommittees. The tendency to put members on multiple committees without attention to their effectiveness ensures reduced commitment to matters within their jurisdiction. If a member is assigned to more committees or subcommittees than he or she can physically handle, the member rarely becomes proficient in the assigned subject matter. Committees like ways and means, appropriations, and energy and commerce have multiple subcommittees that demand far more attention than do other committees. Accordingly, leadership should recognize that members should be confined to only a single major committee so that their time commitments are not strained.

4) The schedule for the Congress shall be set by the majority leader. Congress is a full-time job and requires full attention by members. There should be no proxy voting and members should be required to be on hand for the entire week of working sessions. Suspensions and nominal legislation like naming of bridges, roads, and office buildings can be handled on Mondays and Fridays. Committee hearings should be held in the mornings on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and occasionally, Friday. Sessions should always retire no later than 7:00 p.m. except for Wednesday evenings which are reserved for late-night sessions.

5) Fundraising now consumes far more time than it did when I was in Congress. But members weren’t sent to Washington to simply raise money for their campaigns. The business of Congress should take precedence over fundraising and members should be prohibited from making fundraising calls Tuesday through Thursday while Congress is in session.

6) Members should be encouraged to travel in bipartisan groups in the interest of committee assignments. Likewise, members should be encouraged to engage in bipartisan social events. It’s an unfortunate reality that far too many members of a single party don’t know one another; contact with members of the other party is rare indeed. That should change wherever possible.

7) Members should not be permitted to live in their own offices or in congressional facilities on Capitol Hill. Given the constraints on living expenses for less affluent members, Congress should pass a housing allowance to assist with off-campus dwelling.

8) Former members should be permitted to attend significant events like opening sessions, State of the Union speeches, and receptions for foreign dignitaries, provided that under no circumstances may private business affairs of former members be discussed on the House floor. Violation of this principle should be sanctioned by public banishment of the offender from the House for life.

These are a few ideas to restore regular order. This list is not exclusive. But it is imperative that changes be made and that members take pride in having been elected to one of the greatest institutions in human history. The United States House of Representatives deserves no less.

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About Robert L. Livingston

Robert L. Livingston was a Republican member of Congress from Louisiana from 1977 until 1999.

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