Before taking the speakership last month, Paul Ryan made a promise to fix a “broken” House of Representatives and return the chamber to “regular order.” Eschewing the centralized authority of his predecessor, John Boehner, Ryan promised to put legislative power back in the hands of rank-and-file members—something key House constituencies had been clamoring for.
Under regular order, House bills go through an often-lengthy process from subcommittee to the floor; they are vetted, debated, and amended before receiving a final up-or-down vote. A return to regular order is one of the few areas with serious support from both ultraconservative Freedom Caucus members and progressive reformers in the House. After all, legislators on both sides of the aisle want a chance to be heard, offer amendments, and share expertise. Ryan concurred: “The committees should retake the lead in drafting all major legislation. When we rush to pass bills, a lot of us do not understand, we are not doing our job.”
That’s why it was surprising when, just three weeks into his tenure as speaker, Ryan laid this promise to rest. In the wake of the Paris attacks, Ryan brought the American SAFE Act—a bill to rewrite refugee vetting rules—to the floor without committee hearings, without input from experts or agencies, and without opportunities for amendment from members of the House.
But it’s not just Ryan. Veering away from regular order ultimately reflects a trend that’s much bigger than Ryan, bigger than either party, and bigger than any one branch of government. In the age of the hyper-accelerated news cycle and all-encompassing zero-sum attack politics, top leadership in both Congress and the White House feel increasing pressure to consolidate power and micromanage decision-making in order to maintain control over the message. After all, if not for optics, why rush a bill through the House when the president has already said he’d veto it? Unfortunately, the upshot of caving to this pressure to do something—anything—leads to rampant unchecked power and a reduced role for traditional experts and empirical analysis in policymaking.
The trend toward centralization in congressional policymaking started roughly 40 years ago, when a group of reformist Democrats was elected in the post-Watergate wave. The “Watergate Babies” of the class of 1974—a cohort that included Henry Waxman, George Miller, and Tom Harkin—changed House rules to increase the power of leadership in order to reduce the influence of the reigning committee chairs, many of whom were hawkish conservative Southerners hailing from safe seats where they could easily accrue seniority.
The trend further intensified during Newt Gingrich’s speakership and his drive to ensure passage of the Contract for America. Committee staff budgets were gutted and the speaker’s office took unprecedented control over the legislative agenda. The move toward top-down control hasn’t stopped since. To wit: In the 94th Congress (1975-1976), the leadership allowed its members to amend 85 percent of bills on the floor; by the 113th Congress (2013-2014), just 8 percent of bills were allowed amendments. This tighter control has enabled each successive speaker to better steer House actions in line with campaign promises and guarantees to funders.
But it was the rise of the 24-hour news cycle that took an already-growing trend and kicked it into overdrive. Take the past week as an example. Cable news is feeding people a nonstop diet of heinous scenes of ISIS terror punctuated by snippets of politicians’ responses—while largely failing to provide insight and context into the tragic stories of the refugees. Refugees only came into focus with media reports that one terrorist had hidden among them—that is, among the very same people he and his fellow fighters were causing to flee in the first place, so he could get to Paris and commit yet another atrocity.
Under pressure to act, Paul Ryan scheduled an immediate vote on the American SAFE Act, positioning House Republicans precisely within the zeitgeist of their constituencies. The alternative—wading through the detailed legislative requirements of regular order—would have put the congressional GOP behind the news cycle and behind the headline-grabbing GOP presidential candidates and governors who had been dominating the airwaves with talk of banning Syrian refugees.
Bypassing regular order doesn’t only mean that fewer of the people’s elected representatives have a say in these matters. The price of this kind of expediency also means that rigorous analysis is spurned while special interests gain an amplified voice.
Given that members of congressional leadership are their party’s most prolific fundraisers, it should come as no surprise that they often have the closest ties to lobbyists. Meanwhile, the players whose influence is most sidelined by top-down control—the committee staffers—also happen to be some of the smartest and most objective folks in the room: agency veterans, investigators, attorneys, and Ph.D.-level technical specialists in fields ranging from economics to chemistry. Centralization, in short, destroys both the wisdom of the crowd and real expert authority—and it certainly isn’t limited to the legislative branch.
According to a remarkable report by Karen DeYoung in The Washington Post this summer, the decades-old trend of centralization in executive-branch national security decision-making has dramatically accelerated in recent years. High-level officials throughout the federal government complain of increased micromanagement from the National Security Council, which grew from a staff of 25 during the Carter administration to approximately 400 today. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta described a “penchant for control” that in his case meant submitting speeches, statements, and interview requests to NSC approval. And his predecessor in that office, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, has said that White House “micromanagement ... drove me crazy.” Likewise, diverse voices inside and outside of government believe the administration should be mindful of the mission creep of the NSC.
In fact, specialists across federal departments and agencies complain that their technical expertise and experience are systematically undervalued, because the opinions of less experienced staffers at the NSC matter so much more. An unnamed former senior official told DeYoung that Ebola was a good example of this: “That can’t just be left to CDC and State and others to manage. No. You have to have a czar and a whole team of people. And why is that? Because the politics on this issue have become so much more corrosive and challenging that it’s a natural instinct for the White House to say, ‘We’ve got to have an eye on this. On everything.’”
But then who can blame the Obama administration? Or Speaker Ryan? In an age when political survival depends on winning every short-term media cycle, the drive to centralize power is natural, even seductive. That’s not to say it cannot—or should not—be resisted. As the Bipartisan Policy Center argued last year, all this centralization is a leading cause of Congress’s inability to pass the solution-oriented bipartisan legislation of the sort that committees used to churn out. The center called for members of Congress to stick by their own demands for regular order.
But institutional reform cannot happen in a vacuum: This unhinged centralization is a reflection of America’s hyper-aggressive political and media culture as much as any one politician’s or party’s desire for power.
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