Why is Sen. Jim DeMint upset?
On Friday Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) went on a tear over Senate rule changes, proclaiming: "This rule will make it easier for Harry Reid to pass budget-busting bills in secret, which is exactly opposite of what the American people want. The problem with the Senate today is not that it passes too little legislation, it's that it passes too much."
His reasoning goes like this: under present rules a secret hold can go on for 6 days. However, under the new rule the secret hold period gets chopped to 2 days (but only if another senator makes a fuss and demands the identity of the senator making the hold be revealed). For the skittish senators, the argument goes, this makes it harder to stop spending bills because they have less time to object before their identity is revealed to the public. DeMint, I am told, is especially concerned about bills rushed through for unanimous consent without proper scrutiny.
I confess I don't have much sympathy for this DeMint argument. For starters, Republicans for two years now have favored transparency (criticizing Obama for a lack of it). It's odd to complain now that a rule that tells voters who is doing what is objectionable. Moreover, a Senate rule maven tells me that the cloakroom runs a "hotline" that notifies senators by phone and email if someone wants to pass a bill by unanimous consent. Any senator can then object to the bill moving if he doesn't don't know what it is, if he wants more time to read it, or if he simply doesn't like it. The expert says, "Nothing in the rule tweaks has any impact at all on the hotlines."
DeMint raises an additional point. If there was a floor vote on these bills slated for unanimous consent, a CBO scoring would be included explaining (to the extent CBO does this in a realistic fashion) the cost of these items. A proposal to include that requirement for bills to be passed by unanimous consent was not incorporated in the rules. However, if there's not a CBO score, he or another senator can just object to the bill until there is one.
Lastly, DeMint says dispensing with the reading of bills takes a tool away from those trying to delay spending measures and gather opposition. The threat of a full reading of the omnibus spending bill, in his version of events, slowed down and derailed the omnibus spending bill during the lame duck session.
There are several problems, however, with this DeMint objection. First, it was by all accounts, the Senate Minority Leade's calling his colleagues that scuttled the omnibus spending bill. Moreover, the new Senate rule doing away with the reading of bills only applies when the amendment hasn't already been posted for 72 hours online. The current rule is 48 hours.
I asked Don Stewart, communications director for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) what the thinking behind the rule changes was. He answered, "Sen. McConnell prevented efforts to sneak in last-minute provisions like the Cornhusker Kickback by guaranteeing the American people 3 days to read amendments, and he received a commitment from the Majority Leader for Democrats to offer more amendments rather than constantly 'filling the tree' on legislation." But the filibuster remains unchanged, right? Stewart replied: "As Sen. McConnell said yesterday, of course, there will be times when there is no consensus and when either side may want to use all its rights to defeat a bill."
My own take is this: Senators need to "man up" and explain their objections or at least that they might have objections to spending bills. And if in three days they can't rally the public and their own side (with the benefit of twitter and a 24/7 news cycle), then maybe conservatives need savvier senators. In fact, the firestorm over the omnibus spending bill started immediately, and within 24 hours mainstream media outlets were reporting on the thousands of earmarks and other infirmities with the bill. And for a quick off the draw senator like DeMint none of this should be any problem, right?
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