Recently, Congress passed the 2,232 page omnibus bill titled the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018—amid a torrent of media buzz. The most telling of these reports included the startling revelations that “the package [had] not been finalized and “some provisions [remained] in flux” a mere four days prior to the bill’s passage. Stories of “aides [cautioning] that nothing is finalized until the legislation goes public” also cast light on the secretive and hurried process that masked the bill’s creation. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) attracted a great deal of attention by pleading with his colleagues to actually, well, read the bill.
It is clear to see Congress’s unwillingness to tackle the budget process the proper way, spending a staggering $1.3 trillion when our national debt is over $21 trillion, but what is less clear is the broken process that allows bills like the 2018 omnibus to be produced in the first place.
Americans should be clamoring for Congress—especially the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” the United States Senate—to take up open debate on these issues separately and with gusto. Instead, only a few members behind closed doors get to decide how much funding is appropriated and to whom. These are your tax dollars we’re talking about, and your Representative in Congress likely had no say in the budget process. Is not the purpose of elected representation to debate, deliberate, and vote on issues of national interest, regardless of how complex, contentious, or inopportune they seem to be?
The Founders certainly thought so.
President John Adams affirmed as much in his essay Thoughts on Government that “[government] is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men.”
Then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in 2014 that, “major legislation is now routinely drafted not in committee but in the Majority Leader’s conference room and then dropped on the floor with little or no opportunity for members to participate in the amendment process, virtually guaranteeing a fight.” Similar to Adams’ line of reasoning. But four years later, Sen. McConnell could not be further from his or Adams thinking by admitting “[his] principal responsibility is begging, pleading and cajoling” and that he “[had been] in continuous discussions […] with several of our members who were legitimately unhappy.” This disconnect is a formula for why major legislation like the omnibus, tax reform, and the effort to repeal Obamacare have been rife with internal conflict.
When individual members of Congress are unable to use the proper channels of legislating because Congressional leadership restricts their ability to amply debate measures on the floor or offer amendments to major legislation, it hides the legislative process from the people these bills will impact. The centralization of the process to just four members of Congress—the House and Senate Majority and Minority Leaders—leads to outcomes that do not give the American people the right to see each of their elected representatives doing this work.
Citizens expect to see the politicians they elect, as Adams reminds, fight for the common good. This is why the process of bills being approved by committees, debated on the floor, amended, and ultimately passed or rejected is so necessary for voters to witness—especially when the issues are of deep public interest. Tactics designed to streamline proper procedures and merely keep lawmakers in line instead of letting them perform the duties for which they were elected creates understandable feelings of betrayal for all involved, not the least of which being the people who sent them to Washington in the first place.
As this year’s iteration of government funding fights and shutdowns reveal, the stopgap governing-by-crisis schemes that accompany these debates only increase the public’s already frail trust in government. By seeing their representatives do the hard work of legislating, negotiating, and even failing in an open, fair, and honest effort at achieving a desired end, the public is able to see as opposed to simply accept the words of Congressional leaders telling them they got the best deal or passed the best bill possible.
A more deliberative legislative process is paramount for restoring public trust. Reason editor Peter Suderman bolsters this point with his observation that the “best government processes are designed to encourage fairness, transparency, openness, inclusivity, and accountability” with the important caveat that a “good process does not necessarily ensure an outcome that you want. But it ensures one that all parties involved can accept, at least for the moment.”
If real reforms to the legislative process are to be made, it is necessary Congress embrace Adams and 2014 McConnell’s view that arguing about what the common good is in an open government forum is the best way to achieve that common good. Congress and its leaders can fix the broken system it is currently operating under, but in order to do so, they will have to adopt their own timely promise to make legislating great again.