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.
As Representative Bob Goodlatte, the chairman of the judiciary committee, tells me, “regular order” is the way Republicans will reassert themselves and ignore the pressure from the White House and the press to hurry up and vote. “It’s important that we avoid the mistakes of the immigration debates of 1986 and 2007,” Goodlatte says. “Those bills didn’t include provisions that could have led to better enforcement and it’s our job in the committee to make sure we do.”
“People are going to try to impose things from the top down,” he continues. “But immigration is a complex issue and we’re not going to do anything until we have buy-in from the people. The president is not going to be able to flip a switch and say, ‘We’re going to force through changes to a whole sector of the law.’”
Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho, a leading player in the House immigration talks, agrees. He’s quite comfortable with the notion that immigration reform may take months. He says the public clamor and media frenzy to get something done will not lead him to suddenly ask Boehner to abandon “regular order” and rush the Gang’s bill to the floor for a final vote.
“As far as I know, none of the senators also got elected to the House of Representatives,” Labrador says. “The House has a role to play here. If the people trust the process, they’ll trust the product. So I’m going to ask for hearings on the full committee and on the judiciary committee’s immigration subcommittee.”
Sources close to the speaker say Boehner is privately giving Goodlatte a lot of room to make his own decisions, and isn’t pushing the chairman to play by the Senate’s calendar, or the White House’s. Goodlatte, in our conversation, confirms that Boehner is largely supportive of his push to not only hold hearings, but also break up the immigration bill into parts.
A senior Republican aide says unpacking the immigration bill is tantamount to killing the Gang of Eight’s plan. By blessing Goodlatte’s consideration of the bill in pieces, Boehner would effectively be enabling House Republicans to avoid being swept up by the Senate’s legislation. Boehner, the aide says, believes he could avoid criticism for this maneuver by citing the constraints of regular order and the will of his committees.
For now, however, nothing is guaranteed. Regular order remains a GOP guideline and not an enforceable rule. Conservative members constantly fret that if the politics change, Boehner may quietly forgo “regular order” and revert back to his old ways, bringing a bill to the floor without extensive vetting by the conference.
The Right’s concerns are warranted. Though Boehner has been steadfast on most bills, he has twice broken from regular order since he made his January pledge. On the Hurricane Sandy relief package, and on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, he proceeded to votes on bills that didn’t go through the usual committee process, or have the support of the majority of his conference. He also used his influence on the Rules Committee to axe dozens of amendments. Last week, Boehner told reporters that “there have been no decisions” on how exactly the House would proceed on immigration.
But most House members say that Boehner will ultimately be in line with his conservative bloc. “There will be a revolt if he breaks his promise,” says Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R., Calif.). “Boehner knows that we’re all closely watching.”
Indeed, Boehner knows he can only do so much in this political environment, especially within his own conference. His January decision came at a time of intense pressure. Behind the scenes, a group of conservatives was plotting a coup attempt, and much of the GOP conference had grown restless with their speaker, who had spent months trying to broker a “grand bargain” on the debt.
Plan B, Boehner’s fiscal-cliff package, had also recently collapsed, and his own members were openly questioning Boehner’s power, since his deputies, majority leader Eric Cantor and McCarthy, had broken with him on that vote.
Regular order has gone a long way to heal those wounds, if only for a moment. It has bolstered the GOP ranks, solidified the speaker’s support, and irked the White House.
“The leadership has been supportive of this process,” Goodlatte says, as he walks into a meeting near the House floor. “Pretty soon, as you’d expect, we’ll start our hearings.”
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.