Not the way it's supposed to work

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Why won't politicians follow the regular order with legislation?

FIRST, THIS NEWSPAPER has taken the position for years that the U.S. tax code is too complicated and needs to be reformed. Between special breaks and treatment for favored groups, and social engineering supposedly to encourage or discourage certain behaviors, most driven by big donors and clever lobbyists, the tax code is so confusing accountants are left scratching their heads.

But as the House and Senate move into the conference committee phase of the current legislation, it's far from clear whether this particular plan could be called reform.

Instead, what initially was touted as reform seemed mostly about tax cuts by the end. That may be a blown opportunity. But it's hard to be sure, one way or the other, because of the process by which legislation advances in these polarized times.

THE WAY IT'S supposed to work, generally referred to as regular order, is very different. It starts with a bill being drawn up and shopped for sponsors, who may influence changes even before the bill is introduced. Normally, the next step is assignment to committee - sometimes, multiple committees. These bipartisan committees schedule hearings in which advocates, opponents and experts in the field may testify and be questioned by elected representatives. Along the way bills are scored by both congressional and outside analysts, honing in on various impacts and costs associated with the plan.

If the committee favors the bill, it is reported out to the full legislative body for consideration. Leaders determine when it may go to floor debate and eventually an up-or-down vote. If the House and Senate agree on an identical bill, it goes to the president for a signature or a veto. If the two houses disagree on certain points, that must be worked out in conference before being resubmitted for votes that could send it on to the president. When the president signs a bill, it becomes a law.

But then, those who ever saw "I'm Just a Bill" on Schoolhouse Rock already know all that.

Well. What happens these days often has little resemblance to the norm - or "regular order."

INSTEAD, A SELECT FEW from the party in power go behind closed doors and write the plan in total secrecy, negotiating only with members of their party - usually just a tweak here or there to satisfy one or more recalcitrant party members. The minority party doesn't see the legislation or have a voice. Neither do the citizens. There may or may not be a committee hearing, but if there is it's just a sham because the bill may not be available and there's scant interest in hearing testimony. The tax bill, for example, was still being changed and a final form was unavailable for review minutes before the vote was scheduled.

Keep in mind, these are not bills to change the paint scheme in the Capitol. These are bills that will impact every person in the country.

Lest anyone mistake the intent, we are not singling out Republicans or Democrats for criticism. Both parties have abused the system and trampled transparency.

Likewise, it is not restricted to Congress. Recent years, for example, have seen Republicans controlling Wisconsin bring forth one measure after another from secret construction in a backroom to the floor for a vote with little opportunity for anyone but the favored few to even know what's in it.

LIKE A LOT of other things readers may have learned in civics class, the modern legislative process is a long way from the "I'm Just a Bill" jingle. We think that's more than a shame, it's a direct insult to the people - especially the half that voted for somebody else. The U.S. system is looking more like the parliamentary model every day.

Who knows? This may turn out to be a good tax bill, once people get a chance to see what's really in it. On the other hand, it may be a complete travesty. Neither, really, is the point we're trying to make.

This is not the way the American government is supposed to work. If the "I'm Just a Bill" lyricist could get it right, for heaven's sake why can't Congress?

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