By Karl Kurtz
In another excellent column in his "Comments on Congress" series, former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton laments the demise of the "regular order" of passing appropriations bills in the Congress. He points out:
The last time Congress passed a regular-order budget, not an omnibus spending bill, was 1997. Though it was far from a tidy process, its abandonment, I believe, is what has produced our current mess.
Few current members have any experience with the regular order:
Talking to a group of younger members recently, I realized they’d had no experience of following regular procedures to craft a budget. They’ve spent their congressional careers watching the leadership put it together in an ad-hoc, crisis-fueled manner. True budget-making skills on Capitol Hill are eroding. It’s in danger of becoming a lost art.
Then he goes on to explain what the regular order is:
The President submits a budget on time (not two months late, as President Obama has just done). Then congressional committees and subcommittees take it up, dividing their work according to the departments of government — agriculture, defense, transportation and the like. They hold hearings, call witnesses, explore what the executive branch has done with its money in the past, and consider its plans for the future. They debate and draft their own proposals, and allow amendments from both parties. Once the full committee acts, its measure goes to the floor for further debate, amendments, and a vote. Eventually, the bills arrived at separately by the House and the Senate get reconciled and go to the President to be signed.
Hmm...sounds like the process that most governors and state legislatures follow, doesn't it? The states vary as to whether they pass their budgets in a single or multiple appropriations bills, but the great majority of them follow the procedure that Hamilton outlines as the regular order. A few state legislatures may occasionally leave it to the top leaders to work out a deal in the governor's office on the thorniest issues while the other members twiddle their thumbs. But even when that happens, the committees in those legislatures usually follow a meaningful process of public hearings, debate, negotiation and compromise that shapes the bulk of the budget decisions.