The Bill Lawmakers Didn’t Have Time to Read

Every taxpayer should have witnessed the testy exchange on the Senate floor last week between Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and the chairman of the conservative Senate Steering Committee, Jim DeMint (R-SC). Conservatives were frustrated by the haste with which the Congress was acting on the 3,417-page, $554.7 billion “omnibus” spending bill. Among other things, it weighed 34 pounds and contained approximately 9,800 special-interest earmarks.

“We like to say we are the world’s most deliberative body,” DeMint reminded his colleagues, but “on the largest [and most expensive] bill we have ever considered…we don’t even know what is in the bill.” Yet the Senate moved forward on the legislation with blinders on, literally. “We don’t even have the desk copy,” DeMint complained.

Durbin, the Senate’s second most powerful Democrat, offered a pathetic response. “For 46 hours and 8 minutes the senator from South Carolina has had an opportunity to go to the Internet and see this bill in its entirety, with his staff, and to read every page — 46 hours and 8 minutes.” Durbin then turned to technology. “I would just say to the Senator from South Carolina: Welcome to the world of the Internet. This bill has been posted since 12:15 a.m. Monday morning on the Internet for your perusal … You have had your chance. Every Senator has had a chance.”

The subsequent exchange between DeMint and Durbin says it all:
 
DeMint: “Has the Senator read the bill? Have you read the bill?”

Durbin: “Regular order, Mr. President.”

And that was that.

If you’re keeping score, the Durbin Speed Reading standard required senators to read and comprehend 1.25 pages per minute, non-stop, for 2,768 minutes. To read nothing but the earmarks would require reading nearly 200 pages per hour. No time for sleep, meals, stretching, not even a bathroom break.  And, with so many of our tax dollars at stake ($200 million per minute), there was good reason for lawmakers to stay glued to their computer screens. With barely 22 hours advance notice, House members faced an even more daunting challenge — they had barely 22 hours to comprehend and pass judgment on it.

Not surprisingly, some of the crucial participants in this farce didn’t read the fine print. The first of what we presume will be numerous “technical hiccups” came to light moments before the House was scheduled to take final action on the package — a $30 billion “hiccup” to be exact.

A Senate clerk, it seems, mistakenly added $70 billion in funding for military operations in Iraq to the $30 billion that was already there to fund operations in Afghanistan. But the agreement reached after painstaking negotiations between Hill leaders and the White House stipulated that the combined total for Iraq and Afghanistan would be $70 billion, not $100 billion. The full Senate, luxuriating in the leisurely 46-plus hours accorded it to read the bill, somehow missed what Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) brushed it off as “just a clerical error.”

Some error.

President Bush scolded Congress for its earmark promiscuity. “They have not made enough progress,” he said. Together with the previously passed defense spending bill, Congress approved about 11,900 earmarks this year, costing taxpayers some $14 billion, considerably more than number and amount Bush previously said he would accept.  “I am instructing the budget director,” he announced, “to review options for dealing with the wasteful spending in the omnibus bill.”

As Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation explains, those options include ignoring language in the accompanying, staff-written conference report that accompanies most bills. Because Congress never specifically approves these reports, Executive Branch officials are not technically bound by the instructions in them. 

The power to disregard these instructions, moreover, is at its peak when the language is vague and omits the identity of the intended recipient. Reidl uses one of the more bizarre earmarks to illustrate this point. “[T]he agriculture [section of the omnibus] contains a $3.7 million earmark that says only ‘Formosan Subterranean Termite, New Orleans, LA.’ One assumes, although it is not…specified, that the earmark is intended for humans to combat the termite, rather than as a grant to the termites themselves.” Yet even then, he continues, “this language provides complete flexibility in how this money can be used” and would allow agencies to hold grant competitions or find alternative, merit-based ways to accomplish this objective.

Another option for the President: place funds earmarked for uncertain purposes in escrow on the grounds that Congress has a duty to be clear about how our money is spent. And, while he’s at it, he can insist that lawmakers have a duty to read these bills in the first place.

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