Seventy-Two Hours Is All We Ask


It’s not much to ask Congress, as we do, to make available legislation for public perusal for 72 hours before they take it up for consideration. It’s not just members of Congress who should take a deep breath, step back, and read the bill (#ReadtheBill)–the public should have the opportunity to review legislation as well. Yet time after time in recent years, Congress has been in a terrible rush to vote on controversial bills.

Over the next several days, we are beginning a series of blog posts that will profile examples of bills Congress hurried to pass without providing ample time for discussion.

First and foremost on our list is the recent $789 billion, 1,100-page stimulus bill approved by Congress. This behemoth was available for just about 13 hours before Congress took it up–and most of those ticked by overnight, when most people were sleeping.

Here’s how it happened. After President Barack Obama took his oath of office in January 2009, his first order of business with Congress was H.R. 1, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The legislation zipped through the review process, passing both the House and the Senate by easy, largely party line, margins by early February. Then came time for the House and Senate to confer and come up with a final bill.

There was plenty to negotiate about in the two versions of the complex legislation, which dictated tens of billions of dollars in spending for state governments, transportation, broadband development, school construction, tax breaks and a host of other programs. The Republicans objected to much of the direct spending in the bills, instead favoring beefed up tax cuts. To gain the support of a few Republican senators, the Obama administration agreed to cut spending in the bill.

On February 10, the House had approved by voice vote an amendment sponsored by Rep. David Dreier to instruct conferees to not record their approval of the final conference agreement unless the text had been available for at least 48 hours.  “As the House and Senate prepare to conference separate versions of the stimulus package, it is absolutely essential that House Members and Senators know exactly what is included in the final conference agreement. It is for this reason that I am making this motion to instruct House conferees not to sign the final conference agreement unless the text of such agreement has been available to the conferees in an electronic, searchable, and downloadable form at least 48 hours prior to their approval,” said Dreier.

When the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced a deal on February 11, he said, “Like any negotiation, this involved give-and-take-and if you don’t mind my saying so, that’s an understatement. But the agreement we’ve reached stays faithful to the principles.”

The problem was many members of Congress had no idea what was in that deal. The day after Reid’s announcement, a copy was still not available for them-or for the public. Talking Points Memo reported, “Reporters who asked for a summary of the agreed-upon deal last night were told to wait, because “policy staff … are drafting final bill language tonight,” according to a House Democratic memo. Aside from a top-line number of $789 billion and a battle over school construction, the nitty-gritty details of the stimulus were publicly unavailable.”

The bill language was finally made available  at around 10:45 p.m. the night of February 12. The next morning, at 11:15 a.m., the House waived a rule requiring that conference report be made publicly available for 48 hours before consideration. A few minutes later, the conference report was brought up for consideration, about 13 hours after it had been made available online.

Republicans were furious. Dreier said, “we do have a thousand pages here. This was put online after midnight. We all voted in favor of 48 hours-you voted in favor of 48 hours-to allow the American people and our colleagues to see this. We all understand the urgency of this matter. Has my colleague read this? Many of us have been trying to go through it since after midnight in the Rules Committee.”

At one point, House Minority Leader John Boehner dropped the 1,100-page bill on the floor with a thud, saying, “here we are with 1,100 pages-1,100 pages-not one Member of this body has read. Not one. There may be some staffer over in the Appropriations Committee that read all of this last night-I don’t know how you could read 1,100 pages between midnight and now. Not one Member has read this.”

Despite the complaints, the House voted that same day largely along party lines to approve the bill, 246 to 183.  The Senate followed the same day, passing the legislation by a vote of 60 to 38.  President Barack Obama signed the legislation on February 17.