The anti-human trafficking bill currently stalled in the Senate over Democratic claims that Republicans snuck an abortion provision into the final bill is the latest example of a problem that’s dogged Congress for decades: Like delinquent teens, lawmakers don’t always do their homework.
Democrats on the Judiciary Committee joined Republicans in voting to pass the bill, which would create a fund to help victims of human trafficking, out of committee. But when Democrats realized this week that the bill included a provision barring money from the fund from being used to fund most abortions, they reversed their position and repeatedly filibustered the bill.
Now both parties are pointing fingers, with Democrats saying they were unaware of the addition of the abortion provision, and Republicans insisting they knew ahead of time.
An exasperated Sen. Dick Durbin put it succinctly in an interview with Politico this week.
“What do you want me to tell you? We missed it!” he said, asked why Democrats didn’t catch the language. “It was an obscure reference. Clearly if it had been front and center, we would have caught it.”
The snafu isn’t all that unusual, however — it highlights the age-old bipartisan practice of having the nerds do the legwork for the jocks, or the staffers parse bills for members of Congress.
Former Rep. Jim Moran, a Democrat from Virginia, said typically lawmakers either trusted their staff or each other to keep them informed on the specifics of legislation. But he noted that lawmakers don’t intend to punt the hard stuff; rather, it’s a necessary tactic to make a busy job more manageable.
“The reality is that members don’t have the time to read all the bills that come to the floor,” he said. “It really wouldn’t be a particularly good use of their time, because they’re busy in committee meetings and dealing with their staff and their constituents.”
Jim Manley, a former communications adviser for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, said it was typical protocol for lawmakers of all stripes.
“The fact of the matter is, I’m not so sure how many members read bills. And I’m also not sure whether members should be spending that much time reading bills in the first place — that’s why God created staff,” he said.
Examples of gargantuan bills passed in record time abound in recent congressional history.
There was the time, late last year, when lawmakers were given just three days — cut shorter than that by hours spent at the State of the Union — to review and mark up a 959-page Farm bill; there was the mad rush to pass the 2,700-page Affordable Care Act in 2009 that led to House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi infamously stating: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it.”
But the pace and frenzy of these legislative maneuvers can often lead to mistakes. Imprecise wording within the ACA, for instance, has fueled multiple legal challenges to the law that threaten to dismantle it.
And sometimes, like a game of high-stakes telephone, staffers can drop the ball in passing the message on to their boss. That was evidently the case with the anti-human trafficking bill — a staffer for Sen. Amy Klobuchar knew, but evidently didn’t tell the Minnesota Democrat. The news was first reported by the Associated Press.
“A staff member … had seen the [abortion] provision in the bill but did not inform the senator. The senator was not aware that the provision was included until last Monday,” a Klobuchar spokeswoman said in a statement. “The senator takes responsibility for the work of her office and missing the provision and she is focused on moving forward.”
But Republicans weren’t moved by the admission.
Megan Mitchell, spokeswoman for one of the measure’s GOP supporters — Sen. John Cornyn — acknowledged that staffers do screw up in parsing their bills for their bosses. But she said Democrats appeared to be hiding the mistake.
“People make mistakes all the time, but to hide that mistake and not admit to it for over a week is pretty appalling,” she said. “The victims deserve better than what’s happened to them on the Senate floor. They deserve better than a staffer hiding what they knew about the bill. They deserve better than politics being played [with this bill].”
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to identify the outlet, which first reported that Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s aide had not informed the senator of the abortion provision in the bill.