Republicans are gearing up for a fight for the ages. And they have a secret weapon to aid them.
Well, it’s not entirely secret, just so obscure and arcane that it has escaped notice.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) spoke about this weapon last week in his opening speech to the Congress:
When I came into this job, I pledged to restore regular order. Get the committee system working again. Hold regular House and Senate conferences—because only a fully functioning House can do the people’s business. We’ve made great progress since then. Take our work on finding cures for deadly diseases . . . or beating back the opioid epidemic . . . or our work on mental health. These are all things we should be very proud of. These efforts were directed by the committees and crafted by the members—all through regular order. But there is still a lot of work to do—like a fully functioning appropriations process, for example…
[T]o our returning members, I want to say, ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’ This is the kind of thing that most of us only dream about. I know—because I used to dream about it. The people have given us unified government. And it wasn’t because they were feeling generous. It’s because they wanted results. How could we live with ourselves if we let them down? How could we let ourselves down? I have for many months been asking our members to raise their gaze and aim high. Now, let us not be timid, but rather reach for that brighter horizon.
The speaker is right. The House has accomplished a lot using this process. But what terrifies Democrats is the next step in the restoration of regular order — a fully functioning appropriations process that would give the GOP the chance to reshape government for a generation.
A fully functioning appropriations process means Congress would take up 12 spending bills that fund and direct government operations individually. This is a big deal because Congress hasn’t done this in 10 years. Less than a third of members of Congress have worked through a fully functioning appropriations process. For the past decade, government has been funded by omnibus spending bills and continuing resolutions. Congress has lurched from crisis to crisis with little review of government operations — a pattern that fueled voter anger even if voters weren’t tuned into the arcane procedural details.
In an article in The Hill that I coauthored with Tom Coburn, my former boss who mastered the art of using regular order, we argue:
Regular order isn’t a mere process or managerial goal. Instead, it could save taxpayers hundreds of billions — if not trillions — of dollars and potentially lives as well (i.e. by heading off scandals like the one at the Department of Veterans Affairs in which as many as 1,000 veterans died on waiting lists).
During his terms in the House and Senate, Coburn documented thousands of examples of waste and duplication. He estimated Congress could save taxpayers $1 trillion over 10 years just by making smart consolidations. In 2011, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office supported Coburn’s conclusion that these reforms would not merely save money but would help people. GAO said, “Reducing or eliminating duplication, overlap, or fragmentation could potentially save billions of taxpayer dollars annually and help agencies provide more efficient and effective services.”
In “The Debt Bomb” (2013) Coburn described a few of these areas of duplication:
GAO identified a mother lode of government waste: 9 federal agencies spend approximately $18 billion annually to administer 47 separate job training programs (it was unclear if any worked); 20 separate agencies run 56 different financial literacy programs (why Congress believes it is qualified to teach financial literacy is beyond me); 10 agencies run 82 teacher training programs, while 15 agencies monitor food safety. One agency manages cheese pizza (FDA), but if you buy a pepperoni pizza, that’s another agency (USDA). In many areas the GAO found little evidence these programs were effective. And in the understatement of the year, the GAO said, “Considering the amount of program dollars involved in the issues we have identified, even limited adjustments could result in significant savings.”
As Ryan said last week, Congress has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to use unified government to make the reforms Coburn and others have identified and taxpayers are demanding. Democrats will portray this as death by a thousand cuts but taxpayers will experience it as growth by a thousand consolidations and reforms.
During the Obama years, conservatives were right to complain about executive overreach. But a greater problem in the past two decades has been congressional under-reach. Members of Congress routinely complain about “bureaucrats,” but bureaucrats have no power apart from the power Congress delegates to them. The fact is Congress gave away far too much power to the executive branch while misusing its power during the earmark era. Restarting the earmark favor factory, which House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and even some in the GOP want to do, would be a grave error, as I argue here. Instead, Congress needs to do the hard and often tedious work of oversight and writing clear and specific legislation that tells agencies what to do and no more.
President-elect Trump would be wise to not repeat Obama’s mistakes and not rely too heavily on executive orders. Instead he should push his reforms through Congress and into law. He also should not expect his cabinet secretaries to fix everything that is wrong in government. With few exceptions, the handful of Congress members and staff who control the appropriations process will do far more to shape the future of agencies than the cabinet secretaries themselves.
Republicans in 2017 will benefit from the fact that this secret weapon sounds so innocuous. From a communication and branding perspective, the phrase “regular order” couldn’t be more blah and uninspiring. Regular. Order. Regular order. Whoever thought to merge those words wasn’t trying to write an ad. The phrase has no cultural resonance other than perhaps reminding people of the Star Wars universe’s First Order or the 1980’s band New Order.
But the public does understand results and that’s precisely what regular order is designed to achieve. If Congress takes Speaker Ryan’s charge to heart and focuses on the little things — the mundane and often thankless work of regular order — they’ll do big things: improve people’s lives and win a measure of respect and trust from voters who believe Washington politicians only think about themselves.
John Hart is the Editor-in-Chief of Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.