Regular Order

How is spending supposed to happen in congress

appropriations committee
A meeting of the House Appropriations Committee at a “mark-up” session


This blog is a follow-up to the previous one on the filibuster. It is in response to a question I asked on a recent FB post. “Do you understand what regular order is, in the congress?”  As I stated then, much misinformation was being spread, seemingly because of a lack of understanding as to how the legislative process works.  This is my attempt to educate as many as I can about that process.  My last blog post discussed the senate filibuster, in the context of passing the AHCA (American Health Care Act) This post will discuss what I know about “regular order”. It certainly is not comprehensive, but made to be as concise as possible in the context of passing a Health Care reform bill.


Every year congress must pass a budget. This is a resolution not a law. A budget resolution sets the annual limits to spending. There are some portions of spending that, simply by law, cannot be set. This is called “mandatory” spending or like many like to call them entitlements. These are things like Medicare, Medicaid, Interest on the debt, and yes, Social Security. I’m not judging whether or not these things are entitlements, just that they represent mandatory spending that can’t be budgeted. These 4 categories represent almost half of all spending…..they cannot be cut without changing the underlying laws that created them.

The second kind of spending is called “discretionary” spending. These are the things congress can set yearly spending levels for. The biggest of these is defense and represents about 1/4 of spending. So these 5 categories now represent 3/4 of all spending, leaving only 1/4 of the budget that must carry any cuts to all spending. In the budget resolution, it is taken into account what mandatory spending must be made, then the numbers of all other spending will be debated and set, then enacted into law through a budget resolution.

Let me just say something about spending limits and just how they arrive at the amounts. At one time in the US, budgets were set by actual laws that looked at revenue as a limiting factor to spending. That changed in the 70s when “baseline budgeting” was invented. Baseline budgeting is a system of budgeting that looks only at the previous years spending to set the following years amount. Typically, whatever was spent the previous year will be increased by 1-8%. The previous year’s spending becomes the “baseline”, and it is assumed that the amount needed for the next year will be more. Rarely do they cut the previous years budgeting number, but merely the rise from the baseline. So don’t be fooled, when they say they are “cutting” the budget of a program, they are merely cutting the amount of increase, not the underlying baseline.

Once the budget resolution is set, this is when Regular order is supposed to begin. This budget resolution “authorizes” the money to be spent. Next is the necessity to “appropriate” the budgeted amount into various spending programs. For example, if the budget resolution authorizes ten billion dollars to be spent by the Department of Education, just how that money can be spent has to be done in the appropriation process. In the government there are 12 such appropriation categories.

    1. Agriculture,
    2. Commerce, Justice, and Science,
    3. Defense,
    4. Energy and Water,
    5. Financial Services,
    6. Homeland Security,
    7. Interior and Environment,
    8. Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education,
    9. Legislative,
    10. Military and Veterans,
    11. State and Foreign Operations,
    12. Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.

      During regular order, each category of discretionary spending is sent to a committee that will debate and decide how the money should be spent, in accordance with the budget resolution. In this committee, priorities are discussed and just how the money will be spent is decided. Once they have completed what’s called the “mark-up”, the appropriation is sent to the floor of the House where amendments can be offered then the bill is voted on. By the way, the House is the only body that can originate spending. Of course the senate has its own process, but the actual origination of any spending must start in the House. Once each body has an appropriation bill approved, both bills wind up in a final conference committee. This is a committee chosen by the speaker of the House and minority leader and the leaders of the senate. It typically contains about 24 members chosen from all 535 congressmen, some republicans and some democrats. The conference committee then attempts to merge the two appropriations bills into one final bill. They also can make changes. When they are finished…they send that one bill to both chambers for further amendments then a final vote is taken. This then becomes the spending for the next year. This long and tedious process is supposed to be done 12 times in 1 year. It rarely happens! Even in a good year of regular order, only 3 or 4 new appropriations are completed.  When an appropriation bill is not completed, before the deadline….which is October 1st, no spending can take place in that area not appropriated for. When this happens, typically a continuing resolution is agreed to. A continuing resolution (CR) is simply a document to continue the spending from the previous year, with an appropriate increase from the baseline, if that money was authorized in the budget resolution. When CRs are implemented, spending can never decrease and changes to programs cannot be made. Everything remains the same.

      bush obama
      Presidents Obama and Bush, the men who presided over the creation of more debt than all other presidents combined

      I would be remiss if I didn’t mention here something few people know. It is the reason why the national debt under Obama grew at its fastest rate in the history of our country. In fact during the 8 years of president Obama, more debt was added by the congress than all debt acquired in our history. That means that from 1787, our beginning, to 2000, the beginning of the Bush administration, the debt….. that is every dollar the US government had borrowed since 1787 had risen to 4 trillion dollars. That’s 213 years of borrowing. During the Bush term congress more that doubled this to over 9 trillion. And…….are you ready?, under the Obama term, congress doubled it again to over 19 trillion.  The reason for this explosion in debt was due to the continued use of CRs and not regular order. In 2009 congress passed the largest stimulus spending in our history….$887 billion. This money had to be placed in the budget resolution for that year. Well guess what? No appropriations were made after that year.

      harry reid
      Harry Reid

      For 4 straight years Harry Reid refused to pass a new budget resolution, so congress was continually forced to pass CRs to keep the government funded. These CRs contained the stimulus spending amounts, adding a trillion dollars of debt each year.

      Ok, enough bashing. What does this have to do with the AHCA. In my next post, I’ll be talking about reconciliation. But for now, know that  regular order is the process of creating a budget, authorizing money to be spent, then appropriating that money to be spent in various ways. It is a complicated, tedious, and lengthy process. But it is the most important function congress has…..and it hasn’t been used for decades the way it is supposed to be. Paul Ryan promised his members and the people, that congress would return to regular order. He is trying. Understanding regular order is highly important to understanding the AHCA repeal and replace legislation. It will become more clear when I discuss reconciliation……stay tuned.

      Paul Ryan
      Paul Ryan