Last week, Congress spent $1.1 trillion tax dollars by combining six pieces of appropriations ("spending") legislation into one 1,000+ page "minibus" bill and passing it with almost no public disclosure or debate. In fact, the bill was available to the public online for less than 24 hours.
Before December 18th, Congress will be taking up the last remaining 2010 appropriations bill: Defense. If history is any lesson, Congress will likely try to cram different pieces of legislation into this final bill, and these new bills will be those that were unable to pass previously on their own. If the new bills are included in the Defense appropriation bill at the last minute, the public won't know what's going on until after the bill is passed.
It's imperative that we have the ability to read the bill online not only before it's passed, but before it's debated, so we can call our representatives while there's still time to have an impact on what they spend our money on.
The craziest part of this whole thing (Capitol Hill finds these things to be "normal") is that the legislation Congress will try to insert may not have anything to do with defense. Raising the nation's debt limit and various health care reforms are two possible inclusions, and by "drafting" behind the Defense bill their chance of passing Congress increases.
And while debt limit and health care reform provisions are at least being discussed in the media, it is the laws we can't see, that have never been debated in the open, that are the most dangerous threat.
Example: the Commodity Futures Modernization Act that was slipped into an omnibus bill back in 2000. The text was only available for 24 hours and its inclusion in the omnibus was only known for 4 minutes before final consideration. The passage of the Act not only created the "Enron loophole" but a market of unregulated derivatives which contributed to near economic collapse in late 2008.
Last week, as Congress dropped and passed the minibus appropriations bill, the ridiculousness of not making the bill available online for 72 hours was frustrating and disappointing. Even for the team here at the Sunlight Foundation, who were watching very closely, the $1.1 trillion minibus bill had passed before we could do so much as send an email alert!
It was perhaps most distressing because we now KNOW Congress can make major legislation available for 72 hours before it's debated; we've seen them do it throughout the health care debate. Appropriations don't get the same public pressure as health care so our representatives decided not to give us time to go through the massive spending bill -- which added up to be more spending than the Stimulus package.
This week, Congress has a chance to redeem themselves with the one remaining spending bill of the year, and we'll be demanding they get it right.
Post by Jake Brewer with contributions from Noah Kunin.