Without Time for Review, Coburn Will Block Bills

Posted December 5, 2007 at 6:41pm

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is warning lawmakers that he will object to any effort to use the Senate’s unanimous consent agreement rules to pass spending measures, and he has called on his colleagues to provide him with enough lead time to review bills to ensure passage is not unnecessarily delayed in the weeks before the holiday break.

In a Dec. 4 “Dear Colleague” letter, Coburn argues that at the end of the year “there is often an urge for Congress to engage in a last minute spending spree, approving bills costing millions of dollars with no debate or discussion” in order to quickly move the must-pass measures.

But Coburn warns, “It is completely irresponsible for Congress to approve more spending or to create new programs when we have failed to pay for those that already exist. … In the remaining hours of this session of Congress, therefore, I will not agree to any unanimous consent requests to authorize or appropriate increased spending or expand the size and cost of the federal government.”

Coburn’s warning comes as he and his fellow conservatives are taking aim at the broader issue of UCs and the “hotlining” process that has been used increasingly to pass controversial legislation, often in the runup to a recess.

Hotlining is used by leadership to determine whether a bill has unanimous consent to be passed. Typically, the Democratic and Republican cloakrooms will put out an automated call to all 100 Senators’ offices listing the measures to be hotlined and asking Members who object to contact their leader.

Although the bulk of the bills hotlined are noncontroversial measures like post office namings, in recent years leaders have used the process to pass more complex — and often controversial — bills such as substantive policy measures or this fall’s changes to the ethics rules’ travel restrictions.

According to a review of bill passages so far this year conducted by the Congressional Research Service for Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), some 93 percent of all bills passed by the Senate were done so under a UC agreement. Thirty-six percent of those bills were hotlined during the week leading up to a recess, while 51 percent were hotlined during the two weeks prior to a recess.

Coburn, Senate Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and a few other fiscal conservatives have used holds to block bills and often have shrugged off attacks on their methods. But conservatives argue that the increased use of UCs and hotlines could cripple their ability to scrub bills for wasteful spending, while the public stigma of placing a hold on a bill makes it difficult for other Members to use them to hold up objectionable items or even slow the process enough for them to read the bills.

“Unfortunately, the other side has been very successful in framing it negatively, that the secret hold is the big bad bogeyman,” a conservative GOP aide said, explaining that “for the most part people agree we need this scrutiny, they just don’t want to be the one to do it.”

The aide said that DeMint, Coburn and other fiscal hawks are beginning to make the case to their colleagues that the use of UCs and hotlines is similar to the earmarking process, since it can be used to move costly bills with little or no attention from the public. “It’s basically the same process as with earmarks … pushing through something for a special interest without anyone looking,” the aide said.

DeMint also compared hotlining to Members’ pet projects, arguing “it’s a process just like the earmarking that has gotten out of control.”

DeMint acknowledged that complaints about holds have made it more difficult for him, despite the fact that in most cases conservatives have been willing to bring a measure to the floor so long as a debate is allowed. “We’re not holding it from going to the floor or [for the Senate] to proceed. … This whole idea of [criticizing] holding is a way to discredit those of us who want to read the bill.”