The conventional wisdom in Washington, D.C., is that President Obama bested his Republican foes, particularly U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, in their recent negotiations on tax legislation designed to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.
Given the political unhappiness, backbiting, and general grumbling on the GOP side, it’s pretty clear that the conventional wisdom, so far as it can be determined, is correct.
Perhaps that’s why Speaker Boehner has declared that his recent round of negotiations with Obama will be his last, that he’s done trying to flesh out legislative agreements with the White House, and that he plans to return to the more traditional form of lawmaking – allowing the House and Senate to pass bills through the committee system.
Boehner’s announcement may be, in fact probably is, driven by a sense of frustration and pique. Nonetheless, in a representative democracy in which transparency is one of the key ingredients of government, it’s a good idea.
How many times have people wondered, as they watched members of Congress vote on the latest 500-page bill that none of them has read, whether this is the best our country can do. A few insiders from the White House and Congress cobble together a bill in secret and then present it for adoption with little time to digest or discuss what’s in it.
The alternative to these mad legislative dashes is to allow the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House to legislate in the traditional way through the committee system.
That’s where legislators hold hearings, call witnesses from all sides of the issues and listen to their testimony, consider various legislative alternatives, and then vote. Once the committees have recommended the best legislative approach and explained their rationale, the bill is presented to the full House and Senate for amendment, debate, and passage or rejection.
If the House and Senate pass separate versions of the same type of legislation, the differences can be ironed out in a House-Senate conference committee. The White House, of course, is free to offer its thoughts and suggestions during the process, and the president retains the right to veto the legislation if he feels it is not up to snuff.
That is how the process was designed by the Founding Fathers, and in a system of divided power (the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government), this more measured approach is the best way to achieve not just bipartisan agreement but a full airing of the issues and proposed solutions.
The U.S. Congress, of course, is not the only legislative body that has gotten away from the traditional approach. Legislating in secret is a common practice in Springfield, and it hasn’t worked well there either.
Boehner may have his nose out of joint after being bested by Obama. But however he got there, Boehner is on the right track.