This One Revolutionary Idea Could Fix Many of Our Fiscal Problems

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The biggest problem facing Congress is that the United States government spends too much money on too many things it has no business spending money on in the first place.


For Democrats, there’s a slightly different formulation to that problem. The government isn’t spending too much money on unnecessary things. It’s not taxing enough money from the rich to pay for it. The reality for Democrats is that each and every dollar appropriated by Congress is an offering to God… or someone. The bottom line is that every dollar is a tear running down a cheek, a rumble in the stomach of a hungry child, or an old person’s cry for help. Cutting the budget by any amount (except defense spending) is sacrilege — an affront to their god.

Meanwhile, Republicans — some of them — appear to have rediscovered the identity of their party as the party of fiscal responsibility — except when it isn’t. Many on the right talk a good game when it comes to responsible budgeting but speak with forked tongues when talking about ways to actually be “responsible.”

What’s a curmudgeon like me to do? Join the Problem Solvers Caucus in demanding Congress do the one revolutionary thing that would go a long way toward fixing our spending problems.

Return the Congress to regular order.

“Regular order” is exactly what it sounds like. Congress needs to get back to writing the dozen appropriations bills from each committee, hold hearings on what’s in them, offer amendments, and then send the appropriations bill to the House floor.

There, the managers would negotiate the number of amendments that could be offered, each amendment will be debated and voted on, and then the entire package will be voted out or sent back to Committee.

This simple process has been beyond the capabilities of the geese who we’ve elected to Congress for most of the last 25 years. Instead, we get these multi-trillion dollar “omnibus” bills that no Congressman reads, for which no amendments can be offered, and which eventually serve only to add massive amounts of money to the national debt.

The Problem Solvers Caucus has a “fallback” proposal if the two sides can’t reach an agreement on raising the debt limit. One of its key components is to reestablish regular order in the budget process. There’s no magic involved in this, no special legislation needs to be passed. All that needs to happen is for Congress to follow its own rules — rules that have been in place since the 1980s and that previous Congresses had very little problem following.

That so many observers have identified this problem as being fundamental to what’s broken in Congress ought to mean something. Shortly before retiring at the beginning of the year, then-Sen. Pat Toomey (R–Pa.) told Reason that the “dysfunction” caused by the lack of regular order “is the biggest thing that I would hope my colleagues would fix.” Former Republican-turned-Libertarian congressman Justin Amash for years has been advocating a return to regular order as a first step toward fixing Congress’ broken budget process.

It’s probably right to be skeptical that the Problem Solvers Caucus’ proposal will gain much traction right now, amid a partisan battle over the debt ceiling. McCarthy on Wednesday said the House will pass a bill next week raising the debt ceiling until mid-2024, rolling back federal spending to last year’s levels, and placing stricter work requirements on food stamp and Medicaid recipients. It’s unclear whether he has the votes to pass it, but it’s pretty clear that the package won’t go far in the Democratic-controlled Senate. President Joe Biden, meanwhile, has been steadfastly refusing to negotiate with McCarthy over the looming debt limit.

Everything is pointing toward a continued partisan stalemate as the leaders of the House, Senate, and White House try to bang out a last-minute deal to avert a major problem. And that does a great job of illustrating why Congress would benefit from a committed return to doing things the way it is supposed to do them.

By following the regular order, everyone in Congress will know almost everything in the budget. There would be no surprises, and what’s best, members would be able to offer amendments where crucial issues could be fought about on the floor.

In other words, Congress needs to return to a functioning legislature if we ever hope to regain control of our fiscal house.



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