Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A bill that never should have become law

Rep. John Conyers, along with ten other representatives, has sued President Bush (and others) to stop the implementation of the Deficit Reduction Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 2005 (aka: the controversial Republican budget bill passed earlier this year that cut many government services). Why? Because the same bill never passed in both the House and Senate, and thus should never have become law. Here's Rep. Conyers's summary:
As the Washington Post reported last month, as the Republican budget bill struggled to make its way through Congress at the end of last year and beginning of this year (the bill cuts critical programs such as student loans and Medicaid funding), the House and Senate passed different versions of it. House Republicans did not want to make Republicans in marginal districts vote on the bill again, so they simply certified that the Senate bill was the same as the House bill and sent it to the President. The President, despite warnings that the bill did not represent the consensus of the House and Senate, simply shrugged and signed the bill anyway. Now, the Administration is implementing it as though it was the law of the land.
The administration is passing this off as a simple typo, as can be seen in this The Hill article:
The president signed the $39 billion Deficit Reduction Act on Feb. 8. The version endorsed by Bush included the same language that had been approved by the Senate on Dec. 21, but it was slightly different from what the House adopted on Feb. 1, due to a clerical error. The language in question related to Medicare coverage of medical equipment.

The GOP leadership and the administration steadfastly maintain that the error was technical in nature and was rectified when House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate President Pro Tempore Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) certified that the measure reflected the intent of Congress before sending it to the White House.
But this was no simple misplacement of a comma: it was a change that altered the bill's estimated cost by $2 billion dollars:
No one disputes the central facts of the lawsuit: Last December, Vice President Cheney broke a tie vote in the Senate to win passage of a bill that would cut nearly $40 billion over five years by reducing Medicaid rolls, raising work requirements for welfare, and trimming the student loan program, among other changes.

Among those other changes was a provision to save $2 billion by restricting Medicare payments for durable medical equipment, such as wheelchairs and oxygen tanks. Under the Senate bill, government-funded leases for such equipment could last only 13 months.

As the measure was being sent to the House last month, a Senate clerk inadvertently changed that 13-month-restriction to 36 months, a $2 billion alteration. With the mistaken change, the measure squeaked through the House, 216 to 214.

After the mistake was revealed, Republican leaders were loath to fight the battle again by having another vote, so White House officials simply deemed the Senate version to be the law.
The Senate's own procedural references appear to contradict the idea that Congressional leaders (or the executive branch) can just certify that a bill is identical without calling a vote of both the House and Senate:
A bill cannot become a law of the land until it has been approved in identical form by both houses of Congress. Once the Senate amends and agrees to a bill that the House already has passed—or the House amends and passes a Senate bill—the two houses may begin to resolve their legislative differences by way of a conference committee or through an exchange of amendments between the houses.


Once the two chambers go to conference, the respective House and Senate conferees bargain and negotiate to resolve the matters in bicameral disagreement. Resolution is embodied in a conference report, signed by a majority of Senate conferees and House conferees. The conference report must be agreed to by both chambers before it is cleared for presidential consideration.


Differences between versions of most noncontroversial bills and some major bills that must be passed quickly are reconciled through the exchange of amendments between the houses. The two chambers may send measures back and forth, amending each other’s amendments until they agree to identical language on all provisions of the legislation.


The Senate and House must resolve all their disagreements concerning a bill or joint resolution before it can be "enrolled" and presented to the President for his approval or veto.
I don't know which is more pathetic: that Republicans are stooping to these tactics to get a bill passed, or that it's taking months (and a lawsuit by members of Congress) to get this noticed.

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