Opinion | On This Issue, the House G.O.P. ‘Wack Jobs’ Have a Point

Just days before winning the race for speaker of the House last week, Representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana sent a letter to colleagues laying out a plan to complete the budget process by bringing 12 individual appropriations bills to the floor. Mr. Johnson billed his plan as a way to “allow us to demonstrate good governance.”

It put him firmly in the camp of the G.O.P. rebels — like Matt Gaetz of Florida — who led the revolt against Speaker Kevin McCarthy and have been called wack jobs by their own colleagues. They have been likened to “economic terrorists” for their actions during budget negotiations.

But in one way, the wack jobs have a point: The federal budget process is broken, and it’s been broken for decades. What the Republican rebels say they want isn’t congressional chaos, but the opposite: good government, legislative transparency and real democratic accountability when it comes to the power of the purse.

They want to achieve this through a return to “regular order,” which, broadly speaking, means passing individual appropriations bills and allowing for a more open debate and amendment process on those bills as called for in the 1974 law that created the modern budget process.

That is what Mr. Johnson has promised, and indeed the House would be better off under regular order. The biggest challenge in achieving that goal will probably be Mr. Johnson’s ability to manage the G.O.P. rebels who support it but also have consistently undermined it with attention-seeking maneuvers like shutting down the government or jettisoning a speaker for keeping the government open.

Mr. Johnson is not the first to promise a return to regular order. At the end of 2015, Speaker Paul Ryan declared, “In 2016, we will make it our goal to pass all 12 appropriation bills through regular order.”

That didn’t happen. It keeps not happening. In fact, since the 1990s, Congress has consistently failed to follow its own budgetary process rules, which call for writing, debating and passing a dozen single-subject appropriations bills over the course of each fiscal year. Those bills are supposed to set spending levels for discretionary spending, which includes everything from defense to agriculture to transportation but does not include programs like Medicare and Social Security.

Instead, Congress has relied on continuing resolutions, which are essentially deadline extensions, and omnibus spending packages, which bundle all or most of the nation’s discretionary spending into a single, giant spending bill. From time to time, lawmakers have combined these two into something that sounds like a horror movie monster — a “cromnibus.”

The particulars vary by year, but in many cases, this process has taken place behind closed doors, with party leadership negotiating ungainly spending bills that can run thousands of pages and that authorize discretionary federal spending that can exceed $1 trillion. Members of Congress are then presented with these expensive, complicated propositions and asked to vote up or down, sometimes late at night, leaving legislators with little understanding of what they are voting on.

That is no way to manage a government budget, and it’s not just right-of-center rabble-rousers who feel this way. For years, sober budget policy experts on the left and the right have called for a return to regular order, viewing the current process as broken and corrosive. Because spending bills are negotiated not only out of public view but out of sight from most legislators, there is little democratic accountability to the budget process. The closed-door nature of the process leads to distrust within Congress; among the public at large, it has probably helped cement the perception that Congress is dysfunctional.

In October, explaining on the floor of Congress his motion to vacate Mr. McCarthy as speaker, Mr. Gaetz cast his vote as a demand to end that dysfunction. “I think that not passing single spending subject bills is chaos,” he said. “I think the fact that we have been governed in this country, since the mid-90s, by continuing resolution and omnibus is chaos.”

He lamented that “we have been out of compliance with budget laws for most of my life.” In these moments, Mr. Gaetz sounded like a good-government budget wonk, pleading with politicians to simply follow their own rules.

This demand is not unique to Mr. Gaetz, or to the specific vote that led to Mr. McCarthy’s removal. When Mr. McCarthy ran for House speaker at the beginning of this year, Congress had just completed a budget process that involved multiple continuing resolutions and eventually resolved in a 4,000-page, $1.7 trillion federal spending package that members voted on just days before Christmas, after having had little time to examine its contents. To gain the speakership, Mr. McCarthy reportedly had to promise to move individual appropriations bills through regular order, with a more open, more transparent debate and amendment process, to win over the votes of his critics. Mr. McCarthy was ousted after failing to do so by the end of Congress’s fiscal year and proceeding instead with a continuing resolution, supported by some Democrats.

Still, it’s hard to square a supposed commitment to good-government procedural reforms with grandstanding tactics that invite chaos and contention.

So while Mr. Johnson outlined an ambitious schedule that would hypothetically allow the House to consider all appropriations bills individually, the same letter acknowledged that another stopgap spending measure to extend government funding through January or even April might be necessary to avoid a government shutdown in November.

To meet that ambitious schedule, Mr. Johnson will need to unite a querulous and unruly House Republican caucus behind a single budgetary agenda. In recent years, that has proved a difficult task for even the most experienced Republican speakers. Mr. Johnson, in contrast, might be perhaps the least experienced G.O.P. speaker of the modern era.

But he may be able to put his lack of experience to good use. One of his main promises has been to decentralize power, essentially giving committees and individual members of Congress more power to negotiate and write bills. Some see this as a path to even more anarchy, arguing from experience that the House will accomplish little without strong guidance from the speaker’s office.

Perhaps. But just as parents are sometimes better off telling squabbling siblings that they must resolve their issues on their own without an intervening authority, it may be that a hands-off, decentralized approach is what’s needed to sell House Republicans on the notion that they have a responsibility to governance, that if they cannot pursue pragmatic legislative solutions, accept the inevitability of trade-offs and compromises, and find agreement among themselves even when there are vast differences of opinion, they will never accomplish much of anything.

The alternative is more chaos, more grandstanding, more internecine bickering, more embarrassing debacles and failures of governance. To follow that path would be to confirm that they are, truly, wack jobs.

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