A 959-Page Bill. 48 Hours to Vote. Is This Congress’s New Normal?

The farm bill marks the second time this month congressional leaders have rushed through massive legislation.

A view of the US Capitol on January 27, 2014 in Washington.
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
Jan. 28, 2014, midnight

Con­gres­sion­al ne­go­ti­at­ors re­leased a massive 959-page farm bill Monday night, giv­ing House mem­bers less than 48 hours to dig through the bill be­fore they’re ex­pec­ted to pass it Wed­nes­day.

Sound fa­mil­i­ar? Con­gress did the same thing two weeks ago with the om­ni­bus spend­ing bill, tak­ing less than a week to pass a nearly 1,600-page tome (and that’s not even in­cluded the ap­pen­dices!). The farm bill is ex­pec­ted to fol­low a sim­il­ar route through Con­gress, po­ten­tially hit­ting the pres­id­ent’s desk by the end of this week.

That quickened pace breaks — at least in spir­it — a House Re­pub­lic­an trans­par­ency pledge from 2011, prom­ising con­stitu­ents that they would not vote on any le­gis­la­tion for at least three days after it has been re­leased for pub­lic con­sump­tion. House Speak­er John Boehner’s of­fice ar­gues that neither bill vi­ol­ates the three-day rule, though both were pos­ted on­line on Monday even­ings and sched­uled for Wed­nes­day votes.

The bill will tech­nic­ally be avail­able to mem­bers over the course of three days; it was in­tro­duced on a Monday, al­low­ing mem­bers to go through it on a Tues­day, and then sched­uled for a vote on Wed­nes­day. But when you look at how many ac­tu­al hours there will be between the in­tro­duc­tion of the bill on a Monday night and the Wed­nes­day vote, the num­ber will fall far shy of a full 72, with many of those hours get­ting sucked up by Tues­day’s State of the Uni­on.

While Con­gress has broken that rule be­fore, in­clud­ing when the House passed its own farm bill last Ju­ly, mem­bers say they are wor­ried that it is hap­pen­ing more of­ten. And even among those with wildly dif­fer­ent polit­ic­al lean­ings, Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats are ex­press­ing con­cerns that this could be the new nor­mal.

Sen. Rand Paul said Monday that he is “very” wor­ried that Con­gress is trend­ing to­ward large bills with little time to read them. “It’s prob­ably the No. 1 com­plaint of people at home, that the bills are too big and nobody reads them and who knows what’s stuck in them at times,” he said.

“It is be­com­ing a new nor­mal,” Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Jeff Ses­sions said. “We’re ac­cept­ing things we shouldn’t ac­cept. It’s like the frog in the wa­ter: It keeps get­ting warm­er and warm­er and pretty soon he’s cooked and it’s too late to get out. So that’s a prob­lem.”

Just minutes later on the oth­er side of the Cap­it­ol, a vis­ibly angry Rep. Rosa De­Lauro, a Demo­crat, cited sim­il­ar con­cerns, warn­ing about food-stamp cuts bur­ied in the bill. “You know the point is these are the people who com­plained and com­plained and com­plained about read­ing the health care bill and we had a year to read the god­damn — ex­cuse me, the health care bill. And now they want to give us two days,” she said of House Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship.

Even Rep. Jim McGov­ern, who was a mem­ber of the farm-bill con­fer­ence com­mit­tee, ex­pressed con­cerns about his abil­ity to fa­mil­i­ar­ize him­self with the bill in time for a Wed­nes­day vote. “I don’t know what the hell is in this bill and as fast a read­er as I am, when this goes to the floor I still won’t know…. I don’t know why we have to do this this week,” the Demo­crat said dur­ing a Rules Com­mit­tee hear­ing Monday.

Rep. Keith El­lis­on said Monday that he’s still read­ing the om­ni­bus, which the Demo­crat op­posed in part be­cause of how little time he and oth­er mem­bers had to ex­am­ine it.

Con­gress could have eas­ily taken its time, passing a longer-term con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion to buy law­makers more time to read through the bill. But with time comes up­roar, some mem­bers say privately. When law­makers are giv­en more time to read le­gis­la­tion, so are lob­by­ists, power­ful out­side groups, and even con­stitu­ents whose con­cerns about tiny por­tions of a lar­ger bill can kill the whole piece of le­gis­la­tion.

But law­makers on both ends of the polit­ic­al spec­trum said they find that lo­gic in­suf­fi­cient. Rep. Alan Grayson, the pro­gress­ive icon from Flor­ida, called trans­par­ency “demo­cracy,” while Sen. Tim Scott, the con­ser­vat­ive darling of South Car­o­lina, ar­gued: “This is about the people that we serve, not the lob­by­ing groups.”

“Their real mo­tiv­a­tion is that they’ve simply lost con­trol of their own caucus,” Grayson said of House lead­er­ship. “So whatever ex­cuses they man­u­fac­ture, the fact is that if they do open things up, what they find is that they splinter and shat­ter so they have to try to just ram things through this way without any­thing even re­motely re­sem­bling the pro­ver­bi­al ‘reg­u­lar or­der.’ “

Some of the mem­bers who have ar­gued in fa­vor of great­er trans­par­ency, however, say that the farm bill is less of an is­sue than the om­ni­bus passed earli­er this month. Both cham­bers have already passed a farm bill, they say, and the areas of dis­agree­ment are few and well-known. They don’t ex­pect the new con­fer­ence le­gis­la­tion to in­clude many sur­prises.

“Con­fer­ence re­ports, I view a little dif­fer­ently “¦ be­cause every­body knows what the is­sues are. You’ve de­bated them, they’ve gone through com­mit­tee, you’ve voted for them or against on the floor of the House, the areas of dis­agree­ment are well-known just be­cause that’s where the chal­lenge is in the con­fer­ence,” Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., said. “And so the abil­ity to dis­cern wheth­er one could be sup­port­ive or not doesn’t take the kind of time that it does on an ori­gin­al piece of le­gis­la­tion.”

Trans­par­ency ad­voc­ates and anti-pork raid­ers ar­gue that a few ex­tra days to give mem­bers — and the pub­lic — a chance to re­view these bills can’t hurt. Giv­en the time frame, many of these mem­bers and their staffs have long nights ahead of them this week.

“[This] is gen­er­ally a primary factor in my vot­ing no on those types of bills,” Sen. Ron John­son, R-Wis., said Monday. But he and his staff plan to work through as much of the bill as they can over the next two days. “You try to get as much in­form­a­tion as pos­sible be­fore you vote no,” he ad­ded, laugh­ing.

This may not be the last time that Con­gress rushes through a massive bill, and next month’s debt-ceil­ing fight could go through a sim­il­ar pro­cess, as it did in 2011. But mem­bers con­cerned about the is­sue can take a strange kind of com­fort in the fact that Con­gress is ex­pec­ted to do little in terms of ma­jor le­gis­lat­ive over­hauls this year, mak­ing it un­likely that they’ll see thou­sand-page bills on their desks many more times in 2014.

This story was up­dated at 8:23 a.m.

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