A 3,400 Page Omnibus Bill?

Last month, President Bush signed a $516 billion omnibus spending bill, although complaining of the thousands of congressional pet projects, or earmarks, in the bill. But meanwhile a ruling by the Congressional Research Service — a research arm of the legislative branch whose reports are not made public — has uncovered a startling fact: many of those earmarks aren’t legally binding.

About 900 pages of the 3,400 page bill comprise its “conference report,” a set of instructions about how to spend the money allocated in the bill. Those instructions are treated deferentially by agencies of the executive branch not anxious to stir the wrath of congressional appropriators. But if President Bush signs an executive order mandating those agencies disregard the conference report, the earmarks in it would be null and void — and the practice of elaborate conference report instructions would be put in peril.

Meanwhile, a few weeks after the bill passed, revelations about what was in it continue to surface. Given the hectic schedule under which the bill — actually 11 spending bills combined — was passed, it’s worth taking a look at how it happened. In other words: how do you write a 3,400 page omnibus bill, anyway?

Caffeine-fueled budget battle mayhem

They knew it was coming. But when Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-SC) staffers gathered on a Sunday afternoon in preparation for the soon to be released omnibus spending bill Dec. 16, they waited and waited. “Around dinner time, we realized it wasn’t going to come out soon, then everybody went home,” says Wesley Denton, DeMint’s communication director.

The text of the bill — covering almost all the spending of the federal government for Fiscal Year 2008 — was finally released around 1:00am on Monday Dec. 17, setting off a mad dash of wonkery.

Two days before, Robert Bluey, a 28 year old director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Media & Public Policy, had proposed an idea: “I said this sounds like a perfect opportunity to try out a blog.”

So, over the weekend, Bluey worked with the Heritage IT department to set up “Omnibusting,” a blog clearing house for highlighting “earmarks, pork, and spending gimmicks.”

By Monday, über-blogger Rob Neppell (formerly known by moniker “N.Z. Bear”) a man of many Internet accomplishments such as Porkbusters and his new corporate consulting entity Kithbridge, had transformed the messy PDFs of the bill into searchable HTML pages using some proprietary PHP wizardry. The resulting product was placed on the Heritage Foundation’s website.

Tips started pouring in, “less from average Americans,” says Bluey — the issue was too arcane — but from fellow bloggers and sympathetic Capitol Hill aides.

“The fear was: there’s so much information coming in, how do we verify it?” says Bluey. “We didn’t just throw up any old tip we got in, we actually went to the bill and verified the information.”

Meanwhile in the Congress, the bill was steamrolling ahead. The House passed H.R. 2764 less than 24 hours after its text was released, and the Senate less than 48 hours after.

In a dramatic moment during the Senate’s debate over the bill, Sen. Dick Durbin lectured Sen. Jim DeMint: “do not come to the floor and suggest that this is a mystery bill which no one has seen. For two days, this has been posted on the Internet.” An adroit press release from DeMint’s office noted that reading the bill in 46 hours would have required 1.25 pages a minute without sleep, food, or bathroom breaks.

The bill, as passed by the House, is full of handwritten corrections. Not merely missing commas, mind you. There are money amounts scratched out, with new amounts written in. There are pages crossed out, with new pages inserted.

Insiders say it’s a hectic environment.

The last few days are "frenetic," said Eric Prag, 29, an agriculture and appropriations lobbyist. "With the sheer size of the bill and numerous last minute negotiations, the process can’t help but be intense."

Granted, the 3,400 page bill was mostly composed months previously in appropriations subcommittees, and each subcommittee had reported its bill out of the full appropriations committee.

But while it’s not exactly surprising there would be last minute negotiations, “airdropped” earmarks into the bill’s non-binding conference report, so-called “phonemarks,” which vaguely allocate money to a given city in preparation for appropriators to explain to executive branches over the phone what the money is for, and plain old mistakes — the omnibus process is like 11 doses of that at once.

It exacerbates the budget process. Transparency is reduced. Mistakes are made. Billions of taxpayer dollars are spent without proper care and concern.

President Bush could, with the stroke of a pen, render the bill’s 900 page conference report — whose legally nonbinding instructions are perhaps the least defensible part of the whole process — null and void. Will he do it?