America’s elephantine spending bills are becoming increasingly unreadable
DONALD TRUMP enjoyed a leisurely game of golf on December 27th as he considered the combined federal-spending and covid-19 relief bill, costing $2.3trn, that Congress had sent to his desk nearly a week earlier. But for legislators, the process was anything but relaxing. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic firebrand from New York, complained to her 11m Twitter followers that House members were given only two hours to consider the 5,593-page bill—the longest in congressional history—comparing its passage to “hostage-taking”. Mike Lee, a conservative Republican senator from Utah, groused that the colossal bill was “negotiated entirely in secret” and called on both parties to “stop voting for bills they haven’t read”.
Such complaints are as old as “omnibus appropriations bills” themselves. Such laws combine regular spending bills that failed to pass over the course of the year. They have not always been part of American legislative procedure. For decades Congress passed separate bills funding each area of government. Then in 1950 it experimented by rolling all those bills into one. Lawmakers found the combined bill unwieldy and complained that it made it impossible to understand what they were voting for, so the experiment was shelved.
Since their re-emergence in the early 1980s, omnibus bills have become almost routine—Congress has not passed separate spending bills since 1996. By combining controversial spending bills with must-pass ones, often at the end of the congressional session when there is no time left to negotiate, lawmakers in the majority party can put pressure on their colleagues to vote for legislation they might otherwise reject. This year’s spending bill, for example, included $35bn to combat climate change—an appropriation it is hard to imagine the Democrats getting past the Republican-controlled Senate were it not linked to things Republicans find more palatable, like spending on veterans and defence.
This process often leads to behemoth bills. The working versions that Congress sees can run to thousands of pages (see chart), though this is not unheard of even for stand-alone bills—the Affordable Care Act of 2010, alias Obamacare, ran to 2,400 pages. The final versions tend to be shorter, thanks to more efficient formatting and fewer extraneous explanatory documents, but they can still be tediously long. The final version of this month’s monster appropriations bill for 2021 came to an unmanageable 2,124 pages. This is far above the average, which was just shy of 18 pages in 2017-18.
A report by the ReadtheBill.org Foundation published in 2007 found that 13 of the 14 omnibus appropriations bills passed between 1983 and 2005 “could not possibly have been read by a human being” before they were debated. It estimated that members of the House were given just 65 hours to read their cumulative 12,113 pages. Even the fastest speed-readers would struggle to maintain a pace of 186 pages per hour. Without time to read and debate the bill, Congress cannot trim unjustifiable pork or ensure that necessary appropriations are included.
Legislators and advocates have raged about this before, but little has changed. Outrage about the process has become as much a part of the ritual as the quasi-annual omnibus appropriations bill itself.
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