If you’re looking for something to read that will keep you occupied for a good long while, the obvious choice is Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” which runs more than 1,200 pages. Or, if you’re feeling really ambitious, you could curl up with the $1.3 trillion spending bill passed by the House on Thursday and by the Senate early Friday.
It will take you a lot longer, because it takes up 2,232 pages. If that sounds daunting, here’s an enticement: Lots of people have read “War and Peace,” but you might be the first to get through this legislation.
During the debate, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer hoisted the bill onto a table and issued an invitation: “I ask any member, any member of this House, to join me in the well if you’ve read this bill.” He got no takers, and he acknowledged, “I have not read this bill.” Donald Trump grudgingly signed it Friday while noting, “Nobody read it.” Said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., “It’s not what’s in the bill that I have a problem with, it’s what I don’t know is in it.”
We give credit to Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the Freedom Caucus, for a valiant effort. He burned the midnight oil but got only about a third of the way through it. The Washington Post calculated that any member determined to know what was in the legislation “would have needed to skip sleep and cover 131 pages an hour between its Wednesday evening introduction and House passage Thursday afternoon.”
Republicans may get primary responsibility for approving this surprise package, but Democrats can’t claim the high moral ground. When the Affordable Care Act was speeding through Congress under President Barack Obama, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was one of many Republicans who complained of excessive haste for a 2,300-page document. “Congress is moving fast to rush through a health care overhaul that lacks a key ingredient: the full participation of you, the American people,” he said.
If you’re pulling the Federalist Papers off the shelf to look up the part about Congress’ responsibility to approve legislation whose full contents are unknown, don’t bother. This custom was not part of the process the framers envisioned. But when members are especially eager to get a bill passed, they are often willing to take it on faith that the parts they haven’t had time to inspect are tolerable.
The results are not particularly appetizing. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., called the spending bill “one of the most grotesque pieces of legislation I can remember.” And that’s before he’s read it.
It may turn out to be even worse than he thinks. One reason for this bill, paradoxically, was to fix a mistake made the last time lawmakers were in too big a hurry to find out what they were voting for. The tax overhaul passed in December included a provision that became known as “the grain glitch,” giving farmers an ill-considered incentive to sell to agricultural cooperatives rather than grain companies. The spending bill cleaned up that little mess. Future legislation may be required to repent of errors in this bill.
Congress’ motive for moving so quickly was a looming deadline to avoid a government shutdown, but that’s a lame excuse. If lawmakers had tended to their business in a more organized and deliberate way, they would have had plenty of time to inform themselves on what was in the bill — which, we feel obligated to point out, happens to be a prerequisite to making sound decisions.
This is no way to govern a country. In the future, we have some simple advice for members before casting their votes: First, read the bill.