Read the Bill: Spending Bills Rushed

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Yesterday President Barack Obama signed the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009, a $410 billion spending bill that funds government operations through the end of the fiscal year, in September. This gargantuan bill contains more than $12 billion in earmarks requested by lawmakers or the Bush White House. The text was available to the public for about 48 hours before the House began debating and then passed it. We are urging Congress to make all legislation available online for at least 72 hours before debating it. You can sign our #ReadtheBill petition here.

The omnibus spending bill is really part two of another Read the Bill story that began last fall. In September 2008, pressure was building on a Congress that had stalled on passing any of the 12 annual spending bills that fund the operations of U.S. government. The fiscal year was about to end and a government shutdown threatened unless Congress acted quickly. On September 23, the House took up a 357-page bill that would provide funding for three national security related agencies along with a massive continuing resolution that would extend government funding at 2008 levels through March 2009. The debate began 19 hours after the text of the legislation had been made available to the public.

House Republicans were furious. House Minority Leader John Boehner said, on the House floor, “Here we are, we have a bill where we’re going to spend $800 billion of taxpayers’ money, a bill that has not been through the committee, a bill that if there’s a Member who’s read it I would like to know who they are….I think Members on both sides of the aisle understand that this process needs to work because when it doesn’t work, the kind of transparency and accountability that we owe to our constituents gets done behind closed doors….There are billions of dollars worth of earmarks in this bill that no one’s ever seen. Maybe sometime we’ll see them. I guess we could go back here and root them out and try to find them, but nobody knows what they are, how the money is really being spent, and that’s why we have a committee process. That’s why we need the committee process to work, and we need it to work for appropriators and Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.”

Rep. Jerry Lewis, from California said, “If you are like me, you have a great many questions about what is actually included in this package. The simple truth is this: Very few people have any idea what is in it. During this time of economic uncertainty, our constituents are demanding oversight, transparency and accountability from Congress.”

Democrats defended the legislation, arguing that the appropriations process broke down when President George W. Bush refused to negotiate about funding levels for a host of programs. “Very frankly, we were confronted, the chairman was confronted with an administration who wanted to limit funding, frankly, far below what was possible in order to meet the responsibilities that we have to this Nation and to our people,” said Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer.

We  caution against drawing any big conclusions about Republicans being more concerned than Democrats when it comes to reading the bill. Republicans tend to raise protest about rushed bills when Democrats control the process and vice versa. (See: The US PATRIOT Act, plus numerous spending bills when the GOP was in control, such as Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2006, which was available for four hours before the House began consideration.)

After an hour long debate, the House voted to approve the continuing resolution 370 to 58, with 146 Republicans supporting it. Despite GOP complaints about process, many were supportive of the three national security spending bills contained within the legislation and the lift of a ban on offshore oil drilling. The Senate approved it three days later, by a vote of 78 to 12, and President Bush signed it into law on September 30.

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