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Irregular Order Puts Taxpayers in Jeopardy

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
In making law, process matters. A lot. When lawmakers eschew regular order to craft legislation, it usually means there’s dirty work afoot.

That’s what happened earlier this year, when Congress finagled an extension of federal highway programs and gas taxes. Lawmakers ignored the regular way of doing business, and taxpayers got hosed.

Now, conservatives worry that lawmakers are prepping to employ the same sorry shenanigans to pass an uber-expensive farm bill.

The regular order passing a bill is simple. The House passes its notion of a good bill; the Senate passes a version it likes, and then representatives from both chambers meet in conference committee to iron out any differences between the two versions.

Conferees restrict their negotiations to issues raised in the passed bills. Once they reach an agreement, the full House and Senate then vote on the brokered bill for final passage or rejection.

This Spring, the House and Senate passed two versions of a bill to extend transportation programs and the gas taxes that help fund them. The cheaper House bill, H.R. 4348 , extended authorization of highway programs and gas taxes for three months. Senate-passed S. 1813, called for an 18-month, $109 billion extension. The two bills went to conference.

In June, conferees reached an agreement: a two-year extension costing $105 billion. Fair enough. But two completely new provisions appeared out of the blue. The conferenced transportation bill also now included a one-year, $6 billion extension of low-interest student loans, and a five-year extension of federal flood insurance programs.

Conservatives were outraged that such non-germaine budget items were slipped into the conference report. And now they’re fearful the Big Spenders will use the same sleight of hand with the so called “Farm Bill.”

The Senate passed S. 3240, 10-year, $970 billion bill on June 21. Ostensibly a bill to help family farmers, more than three of every four dollars ($750 billion) would actually go to SNAP, the food stamp program.

The House Agriculture Committee has passed its version of the Farm Bill, HR 6083, but the full House has yet to approve it. And odds are it won’t even come up for a vote there. Last week, Roll Call reported Speaker of the House John Boehner as saying, “The House is pretty well divided. You’ve got the Left concerned about reductions in the food stamp program. You’ve got the Right, who don’t think the cuts go far enough. Frankly, I haven’t seen 218 votes in the middle to pass a farm bill.”

But waiting in the wings is H.R. 6233, an emergency drought relief package that passed the House on August 2. The Left is eying that measure as a possible vehicle for bypassing general order and getting its way on food stamps in conference.

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) has taken that package hostage. She insists that the Senate will not take up the drought legislation unless it leads to a conference on the bloated Senate version of the farm bill.

Conservatives worry that in September or in a post-election Lame Duck session, Congress will take a run at crafting a massive “drought relief” conference report that closely resembles the bloated “farm bill”already passed by the Senate. Indeed, drought relief may become this fall’s “Christmas tree” bill, bedecked with all kinds of budget-busting bijous coveted by outgoing members of Congress.

Taxpayers should insist the Congress follow regular order in its handling of drought relief and all other legislation. We can’t afford to get hosed again.

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