Has ‘no one read’ the immigration bill?
“The vote today is not a vote on just the Corker-Hoeven amendment. The vote today at 5:30 pm is a vote on Majority Leader Reid’s procedural motion to shut down debate on a 1,200-page substitute bill no one has read.”
— statement by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), June 24, 2013
“I’ve seen reports of a ‘1,200 page bill’ no one has read or had time to read. To be clear, the tough border and interior enforcement provisions that Sen. [John] Hoeven [of North Dakota] and I offered on Friday make up 119 pages added to the 1,100 pages that have been public since May.”
— statement by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), June 24
One of the oldest gambits in legislative discourse is to claim that there is not enough time to read a particular piece of legislation. Such charges were made again this week in the course of debating the comprehensive immigration bill in the Senate, in what amounted to an interparty feud among Republicans. Not only Sessions, but Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas.), in a lengthy floor statement, asked: “My point is very simple: what is the rush? Why are we proceeding gangbusters?”
Moreover, in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a group of opponents to the bill have complained about how few amendments have been considered this year rather than the failed effort in 2007 to pass a new immigration law.
Let’s explore these complaints.
The Corker-Hoeven amendment is primarily known for its effort to bolster border security, including adding 20,000 new border patrol agents, but it is also an omnibus amendment that, if voted individually, would be at least 12 different amendments. For instance, it contains amendments pushed by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) that would prohibit unauthorized workers from counting past wages toward Social Security benefits and also prevents the government from providing welfare to immigrants until they become citizens.
So it’s not really fair to consider this a single amendment. Moreover, many of these proposals have been around for weeks. For instance, Hatch submitted his amendments during Senate Judiciary Committee deliberations in May.
The overall bill was introduced on April 16 and reported out of the committee on May 21. So much of the legislation has been there, ready to peruse and digest, for more than a month.
The gist of the Corker-Hoeven amendment has also been known for some time, though the final deal was submitted on Friday afternoon. Thus it sat there, ready to read, for about 75 hours before a cloture vote was taken on Monday. That exceeds the official (though sometimes broken) promise made by Republicans on the House side of the chamber.
Still, we got an anguished e-mail from one staffer for a lawmaker who believed the process had been rushed. As the staffer explained it, changes in the bill because of the amendment needed to be compared against the original text to interpret the meaning of the new text, requiring staff to re-read sections that were referenced, the underlying bill, the changes to the underlying bill, and then to connect the thread all the way through to see which provisions trump other provisions.
Sounds tough, huh? Not really.
First of all, the staffs of key senators — especially the lawmakers who are opposed to the bill — are intimately familiar with every detail of the legislation, having sweated over the details for weeks. They did not just get the Corker-Hoeven amendment, but also a detailed “red line” document, specifying the changes that were made in the overall bill. (The dirty little secret of Washington these days, of course, is that only the staffs — not lawmakers — fully understand the nuances of the legislation, as our colleague Robert Kaiser demonstrated in his fascinating book, “Act of Congress.”)
Over the weekend, for instance, the Congressional Budget Office was able to study the amendment and produce a detailed report on the budgetary impact of the amendment. As our colleagues at “In the Loop” noted, the bill had fewer words than “your typical John Grisham paperback.”
Finally, why did the amendment need to be folded into the overall bill in the first place? That’s because Senate rules say that an amendment can only touch on one part of the bill. In order to get around that rule, unanimous consent must be achieved in the Senate.
That should not necessarily be a problem, but in this case the very senators complaining that the amendment was folded into the overall bill made it clear they would not give their approval to such an arrangement. So these lawmakers are responsible for the situation about which they have complained so vehemently.
The Pinocchio Test
Sessions and his colleagues protest too much when they say no one has had a chance to read a 1,200-page bill. Given that they had a role in ensuing that the Corker-Hoeven amendment was folded into the overall bill, their complaints of a rushed bill are overblown.
Comprehensive legislation, by its nature, is complex, with unpredictable outcomes. But virtually all of the bill — and the amendments — has been available to read for weeks.
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker