Senate conservatives are upset that the leaders of both parties in the chamber have in recent years increasingly used a practice known as “hotlining” bills — previously used to quickly move noncontroversial bills or simple procedural motions — to pass complex and often costly legislation, in some cases with little or no public debate.
The increase was particularly noticeable just before the August recess, when leaders hotlined more than 150 bills, totaling millions of dollars in new spending, in a period of less than a week.
The practice has led to complaints from Members and watchdog groups alike that lawmakers are essentially signing off on legislation neither they nor their staff have ever read, often resulting in millions of dollars in new spending.
In order for a bill to be hotlined, the Senate Majority Leader and Minority Leader must agree to pass it by unanimous consent, without a roll-call vote. The two leaders then inform Members of this agreement using special hotlines installed in each office and give Members a specified amount of time to object — in some cases as little as 15 minutes. If no objection is registered, the bill is passed.
According to a review by Roll Call of Senate records, from July 31 to Aug. 3, of the 153 hotlines put out by leadership, 75 of those were legislative measures, 61 were nominations, and 17 were post-office- naming bills. While a number of the legislative hotlines were routine procedural motions — such as reporting a House-passed bill to a particular committee for consideration — others were for bills authorizing hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending.
According to GOP aides, that run of hotlined bills concerned the chairman of the conservative Republican Steering Committee, Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), enough that he made the issue of hotlining the topic of discussion during last week’s regular RSC luncheon. Although these aides said DeMint and other conservative lawmakers have yet to broach the topic with their leaders, it likely will become an issue if the trend continues. “It’s inevitable that it will come up,” one aide said.
According to the Library of Congress’ legislative database THOMAS, of the 399 bills or resolutions passed by the Senate this year — which range from recess adjournment resolutions to the Iraq War supplemental bill — only 29 have been approved by a roll-call vote. The rest have been moved via unanimous consent agreements, the vast majority of which were brokered using the hotline process.
Critics also point out that hotlining is often done during “wrap-up” at the end of the day — which can occur well after Members’ offices have closed for business — and is particularly popular in the runup to recesses.
In a March 2006 floor speech, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) harshly criticized the practice. “The calls are from the Republican and the Democratic leaders to each of their Members, asking consent to pass this or that bill — not consider the bill or have debate on the bill but to pass it,” Sessions said.
“If the staff do not call back ... the bill passes. Boom. It can be 500 pages. In many offices, when staffers do not know anything about the bill, they usually ignore the hotline and let the bill pass without even informing their Senators. If the staff miss the hotline, or do not know about it or were not around, the Senator is deemed to have consented to the passage of some bill which might be quite an important piece of information.”
During that brief pre-recess period this summer, the chamber passed S. 496, a bill sponsored by Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) making changes to the Appalachian Regional Development Act of 1965. According to the Congressional Budget Office, those changes will cost $294 million over five years.
In many cases, bills are placed before the Senate for only a few days or even hours before they are hotlined. For instance, the Senate received H.R. 727 — a bill sponsored by Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas) amending the Public Health Services Act — from the House on March 28, according to THOMAS. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hotlined the bill the following day. According to CBO, the bill is expected to cost $40 million between 2008 and 2012.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said hotlining bills is not necessarily a bad thing but that Members have increasingly seen the process as a right. “People think they can hotline [a bill] and you have to agree,” Coburn said, adding that “a lot of Members are offended” if anyone raises an objection or wants to offer changes to a bill.
Coburn also said that because of limited floor time, “we don’t have time to debate everything ... but if you object, they ought to be willing to negotiate with you. But usually, they put the press after you.
“They accuse you of being against veterans, of being against breast cancer patients ... I’ve been accused of so many things,” Coburn lamented. But he insisted that when sponsors of bills he has objected to take his concerns seriously, they often are able to work out an agreement.
For instance, he points out that earlier this year, when Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) brought a small-business bill to leaders to be hotlined, Coburn initially objected because of problems with the bill. He and Kerry entered into negotiations to resolve their differences, and the Senate ultimately passed the package by unanimous consent. “We gave a couple of things, he gave a couple of things and we passed the bill,” Coburn explained.
Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the government watchdog group Sunlight Foundation, said the process of hotlining has added to the lack of transparency and accountability in Congress. “Hotlining bills diminishes the accountability of Congress. Senators are forced into an ‘all-or-nothing’ posture — place a secret hold on legislation and negotiate in the back room, or keep their objections to themselves. The Senate is supposed to be a deliberative body, and those deliberations should occur in the light of day and be part of the public record,” Allison said.