When the House voted Jan. 1 to allow tax increases on wealthy wage earners, the most significant tax increase in more than two decades, Camp found himself advocating passage of an unpopular compromise that he had had no role in crafting.
The deal, unpopular with both the GOP rank and file, had been cut between the White House and Senate leaders, and no one particularly loved it. But it was what it took to avert yet another crisis. As the vote began, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) sneaked onto the floor to vote yes and disappeared, while the other senior leaders discreetly voted nay.
“I never felt so alone on a floor full of people,” Camp said weeks later.
How does a major piece of tax legislation get to the House floor without the approval of the chairman of the once-powerful Ways and Means committee?
As Congress has turned into a partisan battlefield, lurching from crisis to crisis, the difficult, tedious, careful work of writing legislation has been replaced by hurried, haphazard deals brokered at the edge of disaster with brinkmanship and confrontation.
But now Camp is part of a bloc of committee chairmen in the House and Senate trying to reassert themselves and reverse course; their aim is to re-establish their chairmanship gavels as meaningful tentacles of power after years of watching the legislative process atrophy, along with their roles in it. Tired of watching as flailing leadership negotiations fail to produce any key legislation, these senior lawmakers hope that a return to the old days of subcommittee hearings and bill markups, floor amendments and conference reports may offer a path forward on everything from immigration to a long-term budget plan.
“We’re all frustrated. We all wish there was more legislating and less messaging,” said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Some chairmen are pushing legislation without a green light from their leaders, some have created their own vote-counting operations, and Senate committee leaders recently defused a fight on filibuster rules with a compromise that gives them more power.
The overarching demand is for “regular order.” which is congressional speak for how things are supposed to work — at least how things used to work. Their hopes are straight out of the old Schoolhouse Rock “I’m Just a Bill” anthem, where bills start in subcommittees and move to full committees and competing versions are passed by each chamber, leading to a conference committee to iron out the differences. A final version gets approved and sent to the president for his signature.
That process, already withering away over the last decade, broke down completely in the 112th Congress. Senior aides could not point to a single significant bill introduced in the past two years that moved along those old procedural tracks. The Senate, intended as the more prudent, less fractious house, set a modern record for futility in 2011 and 2012 by holding just 486 votes — about 175 fewer roll calls than a normal two-year session.