Preventing Last-Minute Lawmaking


Over the weekend the Washington Post reported further on the contents of the omnibus package bill, the Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006. The bill, one of the last items passed of the 109th Congress, is representative of much that is wrong with the legislative process and in such serves as a perfect coda for a Congress that will be remembered as one of the worst.

The Post article tackles some last minute lawmaking by both Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). The two party leaders inserted rejected and opposed initiatives regarding public land sales and Medicare into the bill at the last second despite previously voiced opposition.

Both provisions have been criticized as potentially harmful to public interests. Land-use activists complained this week that Reid's provision would sell too much of the federal land to private developers and that it circumvents land-disposal procedures. Several senior senators objected to Hastert's provision on the floor of the Senate, saying it favored one type of Medicare plan over others. Representatives of Aon Corp., an insurance company based in Hastert's home state, lobbied for the provision.

Hastert’s provision was previously rejected by Senate negotiators on December 7th before being slipped into the bill just in time for the final vote. The bill also included a previously mentioned 520 tax earmarks in the form of import tariff breaks for individual companies previously sought by lawmakers and later slipped into this omnibus bill.

The Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006 began as a tax bill introduced by Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Ca.) to “provide that the Tax Court may review claims for equitable innocent spouse relief and to suspend the running on the period of limitations while such claims are pending.” By the time that it passed it was filled with tax breaks and special provisions like those sought by Reid and Hastert.

The final version of the bill was not available to the public prior to Congress approving it. It’s well passed time for Congress to change its habits of back-room dealing and secretive lawmaking. It’s not just the earmarks that need to be brought out into the open, but the whole process of legislative deal making.

Imagine that the final version of this bill was available for 72 hours prior to a vote. We wouldn’t have to rely on Washington Post and New York Times postscripts to relay the various misdeeds. Instead bloggers and journalists could both pick these special interest-packed-porkfests apart and put pressure on lawmakers to remove provisions and instead pass bills that have undergone a proper and transparent review process.