Read the Bill or Get Out of Town Quickly? On Omnibus, Congress Chooses the Latter

‘This is a Great Dane-sized whiz down the leg of every taxpayer in America,’ Sen. Kennedy says

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., compared the process of considering the omnibus appropriations package to a big dog urinating on taxpayers. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., compared the process of considering the omnibus appropriations package to a big dog urinating on taxpayers. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 22, 2018 at 5:03am

As Congress stares at a Friday deadline to fund the government, the reality that members will have scant time to actually read or process the $1.3 trillion fiscal 2018 omnibus before voting on it is starting to sink in.

The Wednesday night filing of the more than 2,200-page measure was the starting pistol that sent lawmakers into a mad dash against the government funding clock. They were given 52 hours.

The scramble could have been avoided had leaders opted to move another short-term continuing resolution to extend current funding for a few days or weeks.

But facing the bad optics of what would have been the sixth stopgap in just as many months and the prospect of dreaded weekend or recess work (the House and Senate are scheduled to be out of session the next two weeks), congressional leaders were resigned to moving ahead quickly with the late negotiated omnibus.

“I think that so often they do this because they prefer to hide these details from their own members,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett said. “And it’s outrageous.”

The Texas Democrat said the plan to vote on the omnibus so soon after its release violates the open, deliberative process that Speaker Paul D. Ryan promised when he took over the gavel in the fall of 2015. 

House Republicans have a three-day rule for the period between when they file a bill and when they can bring it to the floor, but leadership can waive that whenever they choose. And the way they count the days is already atypical. For example, a bill filed at 11:45 p.m. on a Wednesday and voted on at 10 a.m. on a Friday would meet the standards.

Watch: From the 2017 Archives: How the Appropriations Process Is Supposed to Work

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A pattern 

The pattern of rushing major legislation to the floor — particularly spending bills because of their deadline-driven nature — started long before Ryan but hasn’t exactly let up under his leadership. 

“There seems to be an inverse relationship between the importance of legislation and the opportunity to review it,” Doggett said. 

Ohio GOP Rep. Jim Jordan agreed Ryan is violating his promise to restore so-called regular order in the House. 

“That’s just stating the obvious,” he said. “Like, ‘Is there snow on the ground outside?’ Yes.”

Members were not happy with their leaders yet again leaving them in the dark until the last minute about crucial details of the spending deal they were negotiating. 

“Your Republic might have serious issues if elected congressmen must scour Twitter feeds of reporters covering leaks from anonymous Senate staffers to know what’s going to be in the 1,000-page bill they will be asked to vote on in 24 hours,” Rep. Thomas Massie tweeted Wednesday afternoon as lawmakers waited for the omnibus to be filed or their leadership to communicate what would be in it.

The Kentucky Republican capped that off with a follow-up tweet showing a screenshot of him googling “omnibus.”

Frustration rampant

The lack of information was a widespread source of frustration.

“Budgeting is kind of the Congress’ core mission, and at best we’re going to have sort of a superficial understanding of what we’re being asked to vote on tomorrow,” Rep. Jim Himes said Wednesday. “This process is just awful. And it’s not like we didn’t know the deadline was coming.”

The Connecticut Democrat noted that with the March 23 target in mind, Republicans shaved a day off of the legislative calendar last week.

“And here we are right up against the deadline again,” Himes said. “It’s a real failure of leadership.”

For some lawmakers, the rushed process was reason enough for them to declare they wouldn’t vote for the bill.

“No chance. I don’t even know if we’ll have time to read it,” Sen. John Kennedy said, predicting he wouldn’t but saying he’d try his best.

The Louisiana Republican criticized leadership for what he called “mushroom management of keeping you in the dark and feeding you manure,” saying it’s an embarrassment to the people who elected them.

“This is a Great Dane-sized whiz down the leg of every taxpayer in America,” Kennedy said.

Doggett, Himes and Jordan all said they would have been willing to work into the weekend or the recess to have more time to review the omnibus.

“My guess is the American people didn’t elect us to come here and vote with less than 24 hours to look at a $1.3 trillion bill. … That’s probably not what they’d like us to do,” Jordan said. “That’s ridiculous.”

At least one Republican, however, defended the rushed process.  

“We passed 12 appropriations bills; we know what the appropriations bills were. We passed them months ago,” New York Rep. Dan Donovan said. “This is just figuring out what the new details [are] going to be. That’s been holding up the process all along.”

One of those “minor details” Donovan said members were waiting on leaders to negotiate is whether to provide hundreds of millions in funding for Gateway rail and tunnel projects to improve infrastructure connecting New Jersey to New York City. It’s a big priority for Donovan, who represents Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn.

“All I’ve heard is what people have been speculating, what the media’s reporting,” he said Wednesday when asked about the resolution to the Gateway issue. “We’ve heard nothing from our conference, nothing from the leadership yet. So we’re just waiting — and hoping that we go home tomorrow.”

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.