WASHINGTON – Well, it was nice while it lasted.
Three weeks ago, Paul Ryan accepted the speaker’s gavel with a vow to return to “regular order,” in which the Congress runs by deliberation rather than fiat and lawmakers have loose rein to amend and shape legislation. “The committees should retake the lead in drafting all major legislation,” he said, adding that “when we rush to pass bills that a lot of us do not understand, we are not doing our job.”
That dream died about 10:15 p.m. Tuesday night. That’s when House leaders announced they would take up a never-before-seen piece of legislation, written that very day, to rewrite the rules of the U.S. refugee program for those coming from Syria and Iraq. There had been, and would be, no hearings or other committee action before the legislation was rushed to the House floor, where no amendments would be allowed.
H.R. 4038, the “American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act” (a contrivance to produce the abbreviation “SAFE Act”) was not drafted after expert testimony or consultation with the agencies involved with homeland security and refugees. Rather, it was drafted in response to panic whipped up by Republican presidential candidates after the terrorist attacks in Paris.
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The bill isn’t unreasonable on its face: establishing new vetting requirements for Iraqi and Syrian refugees in which the heads of the FBI, homeland security and national intelligence must certify to Congress that each refugee is not a security threat. A Ryan spokesman points out that the bill was written by Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul of Texas, whose panel had looked into the Syrian refugee issue previously. But there’s no way to know whether this legislation (called “emergency” to circumvent House rules) is the best path forward, or better than the current 18-to-24-month refugee vetting process, because there have been no hearings on this or related bills.
Conservatives complain that it doesn’t impose an outright ban on refugees from Syria and Iraq. Democrats complain that the new certification regime, whatever its merits, would essentially shut down the refugee resettlement program for years while a new bureaucracy is created.
Even if the bill were to survive the Senate, President Obama would veto it, which means the only “emergency” it’s addressing is public passion – and the only sure result of all this will be to return the House to business as usual. Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi asked Ryan on Wednesday whether he would allow a vote on an alternative Syrian refugee bill; he refused.
This retreat from regular order is unfortunate, because this week brought new evidence of its promise. On Wednesday morning, negotiators gathered for a conference to harmonize House and Senate versions of a transportation bill. The bill cleared the House by a large majority last week, in large part because Ryan had allowed more than 100 amendments to be taken up on the House floor – and the result was a bipartisan and bicameral love fest.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said he and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, formed “a great unholy alliance, a team.”
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., amended the characterization: “I think this is a holy alliance.”
“Absolutely,” concurred Boxer. “We can actually work together now on this. … We’re in hand-to-hand combat so much of the time. We don’t have to be on this bill.”
Ryan seems genuinely to wish for a change. He has relinquished some of his power, changing the GOP’s internal rules to give backbenchers more say. But maintaining regular order is time-consuming and difficult to maintain with the abbreviated congressional workweek. After the exhaustive amendment process for the transportation bill, Ryan began this week by taking up the 45th “closed rule” of the year, setting a record for the number of bills on the House floor without the possibility of amendment.
Ryan’s difficulty is that regular order requires good faith, which is in short supply. Hard-liners can bottle up legislation in committees until a deadline approaches – and then leaders have little choice but to shove committees aside and deny lawmakers the right to amend.
With the Syria bill, though, there was no such deadline. If Ryan wanted to find and fix problems with refugee resettlement, he could direct his committees to work with the administration to come up with a solution – and not impose one, arbitrarily, in the dark of night.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.