Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Congress rams through a massive piece of legislation costing hundreds of billions of dollars without bothering to read it. Meet Congress under a Democratic majority—same as under the old majority.
Late Wednesday evening, congressional leaders still had not publicly released their omnibus appropriations legislation, and were not planning to do so until near midnight—hardly an auspicious time to embark on reading a bill exceeding 1,000 pages:
House Appropriations Chair @NitaLowey expected to file massive 1200-page bill, including $49B Homeland Security funding, on House floor between 1130pm-midnight, per source.
— John R Parkinson (@jparkABC) February 14, 2019
Those predictions ended up largely on the mark. The bill as introduced amounted to “only” 1,169 pages. But House leaders didn’t post the final version online until 1:20 a.m. on Thursday—the same day as the intended vote.
As Yogi Berra might say, when it comes to Congress’s bipartisan willingness to ram through massive bills, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
Pelosi Breaks Her Promise
Of all things, Politico reported that one of the major holdups preventing an earlier public release included provisions having nothing to do with government spending—or, for that matter, border security:
“Congressional leaders are still haggling over an extension of the landmark Violence Against Women Act—one of the final hold-ups in a funding deal to avert a shutdown on Friday….One dispute centers on a Democratic push to add protections for transgender people, which the GOP is resisting; meanwhile, Republicans want more time to negotiate a broader deal, according to lawmakers and aides.”
Therein lies but one of the major problems with omnibus spending bills—they become magnets for all sorts of unrelated provisions, like transgender provisions, turning them into a grab-bag of giveaways to liberal groups or other special interests.
Democrats in the House of Representatives promised that this time would be different. In a summary of their rules package for the 116th Congress—one which they released fewer than six weeks ago, remember—they pledged the following:
“ALLOW TIME TO READ THE BILL Require major bill text to be available for 72 hours before the bill can proceed to the House Floor for a vote. The current House rule only requires slightly more than 24 hours of availability.”
(Emphasis in the original.)
Their rules package did change the prior House rule, which had previously called for a three-calendar-day “reading period”—meaning that a bill promulgated at 11:59 p.m. on Monday could be voted on at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, barely 24 hours after its release—to allow a full 72 hours for review.
However, Democrats can, and will, waive that revised rule whenever they like. Those waivers will occur at the times when members of Congress need time to “read the bill” the most—on big bills spending trillions of dollars that leadership cobbles together at the last minute. Democrats pledged to do the same thing with respect to the Pay-As-You-Go (PAYGO) rules requiring Congress to pay for new spending. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) objected to them, at which point Democratic leaders said they would waive those rules whenever they become bothersome to the new majority.
And particularly in this case, Democrats find giving people time to read the bill inconvenient. Even though government funds won’t expire until Friday at midnight—and Congress could always extend that funding temporarily, to allow for more time to review the bill—both chambers want to vote on Thursday. Because heaven forbid Congress 1) do actual work on a Friday and 2) delay their “recess” (read: vacation) and their overseas trips during same. (Democratic leaders claimed their members have been “sufficiently briefed”—because it’s very easy to “brief” someone on most, let alone all, of the contents of a 1,200 page bill.)
In other words, the new House Democratic majority has spent barely one month in office, and we’re already back to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), circa 2010: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”
Garbage In, Garbage Out
“As the old saying goes, the true test of a principle comes not when that principle proves convenient, but when it proves inconvenient. Only when Members find themselves willing to take tough votes—and to abide by the outcome of those votes, even if it results in policy outcomes they disfavor—will the process become more open and transparent.”
That statement remains as true under a Democratic House as it does under a Republican one. The true question lies in whether lawmakers—either Democratic, Republican, or a combination of the two—will ever have the political will to ensure a better, more transparent legislative process and stick to that commitment for longer than the six weeks Pelosi’s (empty) promise lasted.