Dana Milbank
Opinion writer January 17

Read the bill? Oh, never mind.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Read the bill!

It was a rallying cry of the tea party in 2010 and of Republicans bitter about a 906-page health-care law that few proponents had read. Republicans made a “read the bill” pledge and vowed that they would put the text of bills online at least 72 hours before votes.

A very different Republican Party rushed a massive spending bill through the House on Wednesday, just 44 hours after it was posted. The bill was 1,582 pages and accompanying explanatory statements added 1,278 more, which means lawmakers had less than a minute to read each page, even if they didn’t sleep.

This was an ugly and gargantuan spending bill, cutting vital programs while sending goodies to well-connected industries. And yet there was some good news in the swift and easy passage through the House, followed quickly by the Senate. It means business as usual is returning to the Capitol.

There’s nothing to love about Washington’s business as usual, in which lawmakers on both sides do the bidding of the powerful. Yet even this is better than the endless crises and constant brinkmanship of the last three years. The spending bill also offers another sign that the tea party activists and affiliated organizations are losing their hold on Republicans.

This has similarities to what happened a few years after the Republican Revolution of 1994, when the revolutionaries began to act like the Democratic majorities they had deplored. Then, as now, the rebels left their mark; in this case, they succeeded in reducing non-entitlement spending at a rate not seen in decades. But comb through the $1.1 trillion “omnibus” spending bill, as the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense has, and you’ll see a return to the old ways:

●The bill gives at least $62 million, and possibly as much as $119 million, to the United States Enrichment Corp., a government spinoff that last month announced plans to file for bankruptcy.

●It blocks the Navy from retiring seven cruisers and two amphibious ships. It gave the Pentagon $950 millionmore than it wanted for one class of attack submarines. But the measure denied the Pentagon $8 million it sought to study more base closures.

●It awards the Pentagon $666 million to study illnesses and afflictions that include Lou Gehrig’s disease and breast cancer — activities not closely related to war-fighting.

●It gives the oil and nuclear industries a bonanza: $154 millionmore than the Energy Department requested for nuclear energy, and $141 millionmore than requested for fossil-fuel development, despite enormous oil profits.

●Skirting a ban on earmarks, the bill provides more than $44 millionfor the Army Corps of Engineers that the administration had not requested. And lawmakers have been issuing news releases bragging about pet projects that are earmarks in everything but name.

Now it’s Democrats’ turn to howl about reading the bill. “My colleagues are being asked to vote on this, over 1,500 pages that nobody has read,” Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts protested during the debate. “I am willing to bet that in a week or so we are going to read an article about something that was in here that nobody even knew about.”

But Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) one of the Appropriations Committee “cardinals” whose powers have been revived by the bill, assured colleagues that “every word and every number has been scrutinized and there are no surprises.”

Oh? The drafting was so willy-nilly that four provisions, found by the Huffington Post, block funding to the community-organizing group ACORN, which went out of business in 2010. And how about the hastily added amendment so “the fix for disabled military retirees works as it was intended”?

Predictably, groups aligned with the tea party such as Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and Heritage Action demanded that lawmakers oppose the bill and said they would put the vote on their legislative scorecards.

Yet, by a vote of 166 to 64, House Republicans rejected the pressure. In the Senate, where the minority Republicans don’t carry the burden of leadership, 17 of 43 voting Republicans stood up to the pressure.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) had considered blocking the vote but relented under pressure from Republican colleagues, who are growing less fearful of Cruz’s tea party ties. A new NBC News/Marist presidential primary poll has Cruz in eighth place, with 5 percent support; a month earlier, as National Journal pointed out, he was in fourth place, with 10 percent.

Cruz can take comfort that his drop is within the margin of error. But he’s an opportunist, and I expect he’ll mellow as the tea party fades.

It’s getting to be that time, Ted.

Twitter: @Milbank

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