Sen. John McCain announced in a statement that he’ll be voting against the Graham-Cassidy Republican health care bill, a decision that puts the GOP legislation in serious jeopardy.

The announcement is surprising not only because Graham and Cassidy are personal friends of McCain, but also because he's objecting to the process behind the legislation, not its policy.

McCain wrote that he “cannot in good conscience” vote for the bill because it hasn’t gone through Congress with “regular order,” and that he would have considered voting for it if it had been the product of extensive hearings, debate and amendment.” He added that the “specter” of the GOP’s budget reconciliation deadline of Sept. 30 has hung over the entire process.

Moral reasoning—how we decide between right and wrong in given circumstances—often evaluates the outcomes of an event, especially in matters of public policy. Some individuals, for example, oppose the Graham-Cassidy bill for not guaranteeing patient protections while ceding much authority over healthcare to state governments. But McCain judges the process by which legislation is crafted as morally significant. Such a defense of institutional regularity is not surprising from a member of the Conservative party, and it's not the first time the Arizona Republican has used term “regular order” to criticize the legislation:

“Let's trust each other. Let's return to regular order,” McCain said on the senate floor in July. “We've been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle.”

In fact, the moral value of preserving "regular order" in the Senate appears to outweigh McCain's moral approval for the GOP healthcare bill, perhaps because he believes that jettisoning "regular order" will adversely affect every single piece of following legislation. So what exactly does McCain mean by a return to “regular order”?

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McCain is essentially calling for Congress to play by the rules and precedents that have guided U.S. lawmaking for generations. It’s an argument against special task forces and closed-door meetings, and a call for a more bipartisan and (consequently) slower approach to government. This would theoretically imbue laws with broader appeal and a longer lifespan, as McCain wrote:

“We should not be content to pass health care legislation on a party-line basis, as Democrats did when they rammed Obamacare through Congress in 2009. If we do so, our success could be as short-lived as theirs when the political winds shift, as they regularly do. The issue is too important, and too many lives are at risk, for us to leave the American people guessing from one election to the next whether and how they will acquire health insurance. A bill of this impact requires a bipartisan approach.”

Still, “regular order remains open to interpretation.

In my view, there's no such thing as 'regular order, said Sarah Binder, a procedural expert at George Washington University and the Brookings Institution, to the Washington Post.

According to Binders, calling for “regular order” could mean a number of things: less filibustering, more bipartisanship, the idea that committees should craft policy rather than leadership. It's open to interpretation. And, as Amber Phillips writes for the Washington Post, there are a few practical roadblocks to returning to McCain's idea of "regular order":

  • The Republic Party is divided ideologically
  • The digital era has increased the power of outside interests on politics
  • President Trump is publicly attempting to influence GOP lawmakers 
  • Centuries-old protections for the minority party have been thrown out by both Democrats and Republicans in recent years
  • Party leadership, i.e. the President, is publicly pushing against regular order:
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