The House of Representatives is under new management and its newly elected Speaker, Paul Ryan, has pledged a return to regular order. But what does that mean? It’s been so long since the House adhered to its standing rules and policies that many of my colleagues in Washington haven’t actually seen a Congress operate as it should. For me, it’s been a long time, stretching back over a decade to when I was a junior staffer in a district office.
In theory, a return to regular order means an end to legislating by crisis. Regular order will return the House to its intended tempo of debate and amendment of legislation followed by a real conference where areas of disagreement are worked out between Chambers. From an institutional perspective, a return to regular order should create a House that is more inclusive of its members’ diverse viewpoints and parochial needs. From a good governance standpoint, it should create a process that is more transparent to the public. For public affairs communicators a return to regular order will create new opportunities to influence the process. Here are four examples:
This one is pretty basic, but still important given the tone and tenor in Congress lately. A return to regular order should mean a welcome return to a logical schedule of legislative activity for the House– something that is sorely lacking in an institution that has become used to legislating in crisis mode. Once committees establish their priorities and the gears of governing start turning, communicators and their colleagues in government relations offices should have a better understanding of the lay of the land than they do today. It should provide time to create a more thoughtful strategic plan to take on the important issues of the day.
Advocating During the Amendment Process
Regular order will return the amendment process to its place of importance due to the fact that an open process should solicit significantly more participation from members during meetings of the Whole House. Given the prospect of 435 elected representatives getting at least five minutes to debate amendments, the speed of the process will slow, enabling outside groups more time to influence lawmakers.
An open amendment process doesn’t just invite more time into the process, it also invites more paper. That means more updates from leadership to staff offices, more vote recommendations and policy backgrounders. For public affairs communicators, this provides a perfect entry point to educate members with targeted messages, collateral and directed messages through the media.
Conferences that Actually Confer
For far too long, conferences between the House and Senate to negotiate differences on legislation have been all show and no substance. Conferees have met in the dark in a murky process that has only benefited those interests closest to the members involved. Regular order will encourage real conferences where legislation is hashed out in the sunlight. This means a larger opportunity to influence the debate in a crowded communications environment.
A Budget Process that Makes Sense
One of the biggest issues surrounding a Congress that legislates out of regular order is the uncertainty it creates in the budget cycle. 2015 marked the first time since 2009 that a budget was passed by the House in regular order. Returning to a process where Congress passes an annual budget as required by law will hopefully put an end to the seemingly endless chain of continuing resolutions (assuming the Senate plays nice) that have kept the federal government limping along.
For those of us trying to influence the process, a return to regular order will be a welcome way to stabilize the appropriations process. Committees will pass authorizing legislation and appropriators will act as they should. Catch-all Christmas tree CRs and Omnibus bills should be a thing of the past. This means communicators will have more certainty on where they should spend their time and limited resources trying to kill or plus-up a program.
It would be a welcome change to see the House return to regular order and the way things should work. Governing by crisis and the sheer power of the majority is no way to produce good legislation. For communicators engaged in the public policy process, it will bring new opportunities and a greater chance to make an impact.