Big bills pile up for House GOP

House Republicans don't mind passing "massive" pieces of legislation as much as their leaders like to suggest.

The GOP majority has passed at least a half dozen bills exceeding 500 pages despite their criticism of lengthy legislation from Democrats and President Obama, according to a review by The Hill.

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Ever since the Senate passed its nearly 1,200-page immigration bill in June, a common refrain from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his deputies has been to criticize the measure's heft and compare it to another notoriously lengthy bill, the 2,000-page ObamaCare law.

“I do believe that these big comprehensive bills tend to cause all kinds of problems,” Boehner told reporters last month. “Members haven’t read the bills, and that’s why you’ve heard me talk about a step-by-step approach on a number of issues that we deal with around here.”

The full House GOP leadership has repeatedly referred to the Senate legislation as “massive.” Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has suggested that even the senators who voted for the bill aren’t aware of everything that’s in it.

Yet during their two-and-a-half year majority, House Republicans have passed several bills that came in above 500 pages, including two last month alone: a 590-page re-write of education law and a farm bill that ran over 600 pages even after a key nutrition section was removed. 

The original farm bill that Republican leaders brought to the floor — and which failed in June due to opposition from Democrats and conservatives — totaled nearly 1,200 pages.

Under Republican control, the House has also passed three defense authorization bills that all exceeded 1,100 pages, as well as a two-year reauthorization of transportation programs that wound up at 670 pages.

Democrats say the finding undermines what has become a favored Republican argument during the Obama era.

Beginning with the 2009 economic stimulus package and continuing through the yearlong debate over the healthcare overhaul, GOP lawmakers put the Capitol printers to work, lugging foot-high stacks of legislation to the House floor and before television cameras to stoke opposition to new government spending and regulations.

“The GOP's argument over the bill's size is nothing more than a messaging tool used to advance the same old impractical agenda the party has been peddling for years to undermine the role of federal government,” freshman Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said. “In their eyes, the length of a bill is synonymous with big government. The question should never be about the length or size of a bill, but rather about its effectiveness.”

A former high school teacher, Takano has also pointed out that legislation like the Senate immigration bill isn’t as long as it appears. Bills introduced in Congress are written in large font, double-spaced and with the kind of wide margins that are only found in children’s books.

If you judge the Senate bill by word count and compare it to a book or term paper, he has argued, it would come in at a much more manageable 268 pages, or about one-quarter the size.

Spokesmen for Boehner and Cantor challenged the comparison between a “government takeover” of the healthcare and what they said were “routine” authorization bills.

“Immigration reform is not routine debate, where the complexities of border security, workplace reform, and immigration must be deliberately considered each in their own right,” Cantor spokesman Rory Cooper said. “Certainly nobody would compare these measures to more routine appropriations or authorization bills that requires budget specificity. That would be silly.”

The farm bill and Student Success Act were technically reauthorizations of existing programs, although they contained far-reaching reforms and in the case of the latter, eliminated dozens of federal education programs.

“The Senate [immigration] bill was still being written hours before passage,” Cooper said. “That is not the type of transparency citizens expect on legislation that has such a major impact on this nation, nor does it inspire confidence that every senator knew what was in the bill.”

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said: “The difference between routine Defense authorization bills or reform of the farm and nutrition programs and a government takeover of Americans’ healthcare is glaringly obvious.”

A bipartisan House group is planning to introduce its own immigration overhaul in September that members say will be around 500 pages, considerably shorter than the Senate version and comparable in size to the education and farm bills the House passed in July.

The complaints about bill size date back to the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan would criticize Congress for combining annual appropriations bills into what he called “massive,” “take-it-or-leave-it” omnibus spending bills, said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a political scientist at George Washington University.

Reagan campaigned unsuccessfully for a line-item veto power that would allow him to reject specific provisions in legislation.

While members of both parties have used the bill-size argument, Republicans have made it louder and more often in recent years. When Republicans won control of the House in 1994 and in 2010, they instituted layover times for members and the public to read legislation, although those requirements are often waived as deadlines near.

“Big bills tend to reflect global compromises,” Binder said. “Sometimes the compromise is knitted together with pork and other sweeteners, and other times the parties just have different priorities.”

The Senate immigration bill grew longer, for example, because it included provisions boost border security demanded by Republicans as well as a complicated path to citizenship for illegal immigrants that was a key priority of Democrats.

The practice of adding provisions or entire bills to legislative packages to win support dates at least to the Compromise of 1850, Binder noted, when Sen. Henry Clay brokered the passage of five bills to end an impasse between slave and free states.

“In the end, you end up with a big, fat bill, but there’s a purpose to it,” Binder said.