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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Legislative Process

At The New York Times, Derek Willis writes that a bill on sex trafficking stalled in the Senate when Democrats discovered antiabortion language.  Actually a Democratic staffer spotted the language but got the blame for not alerting members (who failed to read the bill). Willis proposes avoiding such problems by treating bills as if they were web pages, with links to relevant laws and rules.
Sound far-fetched? It isn’t. The way most congressional legislation is drafted (using computers) makes it possible to add markup — like citations to laws — to the text of bills. That ability has been in place since 2001. What happened to the sex-trafficking bill, which would create a fund for victims, is an example of how marking up legislation like web pages (and then publishing them) would be useful.
The sex-trafficking bill’s offending language isn’t exactly transparent; it doesn’t mention abortion at all. It says, if you can parse the legalese: “Amounts in the [Domestic Trafficking Victims’] Fund, or otherwise transferred from the Fund, shall be subject to the limitations on the use or expending of amounts described in sections 506 and 507 of division H of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014 (Public Law 113-76; 128 Stat. 409) to the same extent as if amounts in the Fund were funds appropriated under division H of such Act.”
The “limitations” referred to in the bill say that money can’t be spent “for any abortion” except in cases of incest or rape or “for health benefits coverage that includes coverage of abortion.” But in order to know that, a reader of the bill would have to know what was in part of the law passed in January 2014 or know what search keywords to use in those sections. The abortion restrictions, which are commonly known as the “Hyde amendment” after Henry Hyde, a former Illinois Republican congressman who opposed abortion, are a regular feature in Republican-authored spending bills.
There’s already an effort to modernize most congressional legislation drafting, but it isn’t coming from inside government. The Cato Institute, the libertarian-leaning research and policy organization, created the Deepbills Project, which takes legislation published by Congress and adds references, including to existing laws and government organizations like federal agencies and congressional committees.
Matt Fuller reports at Roll Call:
Republicans are breaking out their procedural rulebooks for the House budget resolution, with leadership getting creative to appease defense hawks who want additional spending and conservatives who are apt to reject more military dollars that aren’t offset.

The House Rules Committee Monday set up a series of votes this week on six budget proposals: The one reported out of committee, the version reported out of committee with an additional $2 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations, a leaner Republican Study Committee budget, a House Democratic Caucus budget, a proposal from the Progressive Caucus, and one from the Congressional Black Caucus.

The budget with the $2 billion additional defense dollars is the one House leadership ultimately wants to see adopted. That proposal will be the final vote in the series.

Here’s how the process works: the budget that gets the most votes is the one that wins. In congressional parlance, it’s called “Queen of the Hill.”

GOP leaders had to get funky with the rule after the Budget Committee reported out a bill without the additional $2 billion that Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee said was critical to their support. It seemed like the Rules Committee would just include self-executing language — making a bill with the amendment to the base text — but conservatives balked. They threatened to vote down any rule that simply added money without an offset for that expense and without a real vote.