Four months ago on a cold January day, an exhausted John Boehner walked into a windowless room in the Capitol basement, turned to his colleagues, and conceded. No longer, he told House Republicans, would he conduct closed-door negotiations with President Obama. House business, he declared, would now be ruled by “regular order.”
In Beltway-speak, this meant that, from then on, Boehner would chiefly use the committees to craft legislation. Lawmaking, in almost every sense, would be slowed down. Instead of being the subject of haggling in the Oval Office over Merlot and Nicorette, bills would be amended and fleshed out through committee hearings, the way they have been since time immemorial.
It was a critical moment, and ever since, “regular order” has limited Obama.
“That is one of the key things that has happened,” says majority whip Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican. “We’ve gone back to regular order and that empowers us. I don’t want people to get into the mindset that if the Senate passes something, somehow that comes to the House floor, just like that.”
“Regular order” is cited inside the Republican cloakroom as a slightly subversive way in which the president can be stalled. Boehner’s shift has created a slow-motion sausage factory for Obama’s legislative projects. Even if the Democratic-controlled Senate passes a bill, it faces a tortuous procedural future in the lower chamber.
And that’s a big “if,” as the gun-control debate demonstrated. As a practical matter, regular order means letting the Senate go first, and putting the pressure on Harry Reid and his Senate Democrats rather than John Boehner and his House Republicans. The debate over background checks was all about red-state Democratic senators, who earned a tongue-lashing from the president after the bill went down. The dissension is among Democrats and Boehner won’t even have to hold a vote.
And if something does get to the House, it faces an arduous path. “[There are] committee meetings and subcommittee hearings, and then maybe more committee meetings and subcommittee hearings,” says Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, a longtime Boehner ally. “It’s the way the process works. You give people a chance to comment and offer their amendments.”
Not everyone, though, is pleased with the development. “All of the conservatives, they think they have frozen Boehner; he’s in their pocket,” says a GOP insider, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “The committee chairmen like it because they get to run the show. But it usually leads to nothing happening.”
Nevertheless, what was originally announced as a way to boost a flagging Boehner has become the leadership’s underlying strategy in dealing with the White House. Because of “regular order,” House leaders can now say that eleventh-hour deals aren’t on the table, since any such deal risks an internal rebellion. The era of late-night offers from Vice President Joe Biden is over.
“Regular order” allows House Republicans to dictate the pace of legislation and makes “grand bargains” of any sort harder to pass. Consider immigration. Several sources close to the leadership say that even if the Senate passes something on immigration, the bill will be immediately sent to the committees, and then either sent back to the Senate with changes, or rewritten in a bicameral conference committee. This means that the chance of the Senate’s Gang of Eight bill coming to the House floor, as is, is nearly non-existent. House Republicans would first have to mull it, schedule hearings, and then tinker with its legislative language.
That tweaking process could take months, which is just fine with many Republicans, who’d like the public to have as much time as possible to chew over the controversial elements of Obama’s prized bills. The caucus consensus is: The more time Congress takes to consider a bill, the more time the public has to sour on its components.
The Republicans’ obsession with “regular order” reflects their weariness not only with Boehner’s unpredictable negotiating style, but also with the president. Behind the scenes, Republicans are tired of the president’s talking about the urgency to do this or that, and they don’t mind making him wait.