When Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, complained this week that Democrats were ramming the proposed $835 billion economic stimulus package too quickly through Congress, he was hardly charting new territory as far as minority party gripes.
The "you're not giving us reasonable time to debate this important legislation" is a well-worn minority party refrain.
But we wondered whether Barton was accurate when he said the House Energy and Commerce Committee has not — and will not — hold a single hearing on a major portion of the $850 billion stimulus plan that came before it.
Here's what Barton said on Jan. 22: "While I understand the majority’s desire to move quickly on the stimulus package, I think the short leash that the speaker has put us on restricts our ability to write competent legislation. We have not had a single hearing on anything in front of us, meaning that the only opinion we’ve heard on the expenditure of billions of dollars is that of the speaker. We’ve been told that even one hearing would be one too many, and that we have a single day to approve these five complex propositions that will affect the lives of millions. That’s because the speaker wants the entire stimulus package on the House floor next week.
“By my count, in front of us are 269 pages of text. I have not yet seen the most recent CBO score, but suffice it to say that these 269 pages approve the spending of hundreds of billions of dollars. Will this package of legislation waste money? Will it abuse people? Will it raise a dust cloud of unintended and unhappy consequences? Will we be embarrassed by some of what we approve here today? The answer is yes, yes, yes and yes."
The portion of the stimulus plan that came before Energy and Commerce Committee includes about $170 billion in proposed spending.
No one challenges the claim that the massive spending bill is being fast-tracked.
At a congressional forum on Jan. 7, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi explained the urgency this way: "Nothing could be clearer than the fact that we need action and we need action now. A failure to act quickly can only lead to more job losses and more economic pain for Americans. If we act boldly and rapidly, we can begin to create new jobs and opportunities today and strengthen our economy, as you said, for the long run."
President Obama has said he wants to have the package approved by mid February.
Republicans have cried foul, saying there has been little effort by Democrats to craft a bipartisan package, and that they only received a draft of the proposal on Jan. 16. Less than a week later, the plan came before the House Appropriations, Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce committees, for one day of "markups." That means committee members can propose amendments.
On Jan. 22, Barton's Energy and Commerce Committee, on which he is the senior Republican, held a marathon 12-hour "markup" session during which numerous amendments were added to the proposal. The fate of amendments largely depended on which side of the aisle the suggestions came from, as nearly all of the dozens of Republican-backed amendments were rejected.
Don Ritchie, associate historian of the Senate Historical Office, said while congressional committees are typically permitted hearings on major spending plans, "when there's an emergency, they tend not to go along in regular order. ... When the leadership of both houses agrees it's important enough to circumvent, then they'll go around the regular order."
The minority party almost always objects, he said, but both parties have done it when they control the majority.
"It's not unprecedented by any means," Ritchie said of bypassing hearings. But it is unusual for such a large spending plan.
"There hasn't been anything of that magnitude in a long time," Ritchie said. "That stands out by itself, I think."
Barton used words like "abomination" and "truly an insult" to describe the fast-tracking of the plan.
By way of explaining the need for a streamlined review, Committee Chairman Rep. Henry A. Waxman said, "We are in a deep and long recession. Our unemployment rate is over 7 percent and growing. We urgently need an economic recovery package — and we need it immediately."
On Jan. 23, Obama met with Republican leadership to get their input on the proposed stimulus package; and he agreed to meet with the Republican caucuses this week, though many Republicans scoffed at the suggestion it will result in anything close to a bipartisan plan.
One can argue whether the urgency of the economic crisis outweighs the need for deliberate consideration through congressional hearings, but Barton is right: There have been no hearings on the massive stimulus package that Congress is expected to vote on as early as this week.
We rule his statement True.