‘Minibus’ Budget Bill Passes the House

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A couple of weeks ago we talked about the possibility of Congress rolling the remaining appropriations bills into one package (called an omnibus bill) so lawmakers could approve the legislation before the end-of-year recess. Aside from that deadline, a continuing resolution (the second one this year) is set to expire on Dec. 18, and that would leave major portions of the federal government without funding.

There are six budget bills remaining this year: (Commerce, Defense, Financial Services, Labor/HHS/Education, Military Construction/Veterans Affairs, State/Foreign Operations, Transportation/HUD). While many predicted they would all be combined into one omnibus bill, it looks like Congress will consider the Defense spending bill separately. The other five bills were combined in a “minibus” package, filed as a conference report, and posted online yesterday.

As regular readers know, we’re big advocates of transparency and openness at the Sunlight Foundation and OpenCongress. We’ve been advocating for a 72-hour rule for a long time, and I was planning to use this post to show that the bill was not going to be available online for 72 hours before a vote. Before I could do that, it was approved in the House (by a vote of 221-202, full roll call coming soon). We don’t even have a page on the bill here on OpenCongress yet.

That the bill wasn’t online for 72 hours is, in itself, not the biggest consideration: it is a 1,000+ page piece of legislation that contains more than a trillion dollars in spending for five of the largest federal agencies in the country, plus Medicare and Medicaid. Each one of the appropriations bills that was combined have constituencies: members of the public, organizations, groups, companies, foreign policy, all are impacted by these individual bills. Each individual bill should have been debated out in the open, where stakeholders could participate in the process and members could vote on the separate pieces.

Instead, the incentives for supporting (or opposing) such a large piece of legislation change, often drastically.

The situation with the Defense spending bill will be similar—and likely much more difficult. In addition to the normal Defense budget, expect funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (including money for the troop increase recently announced by President Obama), an extension of the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program and COBRA subsidies (which I blogged about earlier this week), and according to some reports, legislation to raise the debt ceiling (which Donny touched on today). On top of all that, there’s literally no telling what else might get added at the last minute.

We’ll do our best to keep you apprised of the situation, but OpenCongress can only do so much: we need Congress to step up and do a better job of making information available to citizens.

Weeks Before Deadline, Congress Moves to Extend Unemployment Benefits

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While the country has experienced an almost unprecedented economic downturn this year, one of the most effective forms of stimulus has been unemployment benefits. As reported in a new study (PDF) published by the National Employment Law Project and the Center for American Progress Action Fund, “[t]he part of the stimulus providing the biggest bang for the buck–the most economic activity per federal dollar spent–is the extension of unemployment insurance benefits.”

Those stimulus benefits (also called Emergency Unemployment Compensation) have been the source of intense political wrangling during the past 18 months: House Democrats initially sought to include them in legislation in 2008, but President Bush threatened to veto any bill that contained a benefits provision. In November, Bush relented, and signed H.R. 6867. The program was then expanded in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. the stimulus bill) that was passed in February. More recently, Congress approved an expansion of EUC of between 14-20 weeks (depending on the level of unemployment in a particular state), but only after weeks of bickering in the Senate.

The time spent legislating that expansion is now catching up on millions of unemployed Americans, because the EUC program wasn’t extended when it was expanded. Therefore, the EUC plan enacted as part of the stimulus bill will expire on December 31. According to NELP, more than 1 million Americans will see their benefits dropped in January, and more than 3 million by March, if Congress doesn’t pass a bill extending EUC.

In addition to the EUC program, the NELP/CAP study recommended renewing additional ARRA provisions: federal funding for Extended Benefits, an $25-per-week benefit for the unemployed, a subsidy for COBRA, and tax exemptions on unemployment benefits.

Two bills have been introduced to extend the ARRA provisions: H.R. 4183 in the House, and S.2831 in the Senate. OpenCongress.org should have the text online for those bills this evening, so be sure to start tracking them.

House Office release Office Expense Reports

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In a new (and welcomed) form of disclosure, House members have released a huge document dump containing office expenditures for all 435 representatives. Sunlight will be doing a distributed research project of some sort to sift through the data, but I wanted to get out the info on New Mexico’s congressional delegation. For the following charts, the column on the right is quarterly, while the column on the left if YTD (though which quarter is kinda confusing). Click for larger versions.

First up, Rep. Martin Heinrich. His report can be found in the second PDF, beginning on page 343. Here’s the summary:

Martin Heinrich Expense Report 2009

Next up is Rep. Harry Teague. His report is located on the third PDF, beginning on page 277:

Harry Teague Expense Report 2009

Finally, here’s Rep. Ben Lujan. His report is in the second PDF, starting on page 337. His summary:

Ben Ray Lujan Expense Report 2009
Looks like Rep. Teague spent the most this quarter and YTD, almost cracking the $1 million mark for 2009 spending just more than $900,000 thus far.

Each member has about 5-6 pages of information, where the above info is broken down into details (like reimbursements for taxi rides and contracts for technology services), so check through and see if there’s anything interesting. Also, while these reports are a great asset and step toward transparency, they could be better. Keep an eye on the Sunlight Foundation blog for more and to see how you can help.

Update: To answer the obvious question, I included images because I literally couldn’t copy and paste just the sections I wanted. That’s how poorly structured these were (at least for me).

Update 2: Though Rep. Teague did spend the most among his peers in New Mexico, he didn’t really come close to spending $1 million (though Rep. Heinrich did). Also, Teague has been disclosing his office expenditures online all year long. You can see those reports here (on Teague’s nicely detailed Transparent Government page). After doing some searching on the sites for Reps. Heinrich and Lujan, I couldn’t find a similar page, nor could I locate office disclosures for past quarters.

So, kudos to Rep. Teague for being ahead of the curve.

Unemployment Benefits Extension Explained By OpenCongress Users

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The House today is set to vote on an extension of unemployment benefits. The comment threads on bills related to the issue have long been a valuable resource for people seeking information on unemployment benefits. For example, with huge interest in the House health care reform bill, the legislation generated 1,500 comments. By comparison, the page for H.R. 3548 has more than 2,500 comments. Its predecessor, H.R. 6867, had more than 57,000 comments. The community that has built up around these bills is a “community” in the truest sense of the word: the people know one another, there’s some infighting (and trolling), but generally individuals can find a sympathetic crowd who are knowledgeable about the issue and willing to help.

In the spirit of that community, I thought I would use comments from the H.R. 3548 thread as the core of this blog post. In particular, I’ll single out nancym, who has done a remarkable job of tracking the legislation, contacting lawmakers and committees, and keeping her fellow users informed. Continue reading…

New Mexico ranks first in greenlighting stimulus projects

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That’s according to the ProPublica Reporting Network, which crowdsourced a spot-check of 520 projects across the country. There’s a great article up (compiled by my buddy Amanda Michel) showing the state of stimulus funding in the 50 states. New Mexico appears to be doing well:

The federal Transportation Department data, listing the status through Aug. 7 of approved road and bridge projects in all 50 states, show a huge disparity in progress nationwide.

New Mexico is the furthest ahead when it comes to green-lighting projects, having issued a notice to proceed for all its approved projects.

According to Michel, the coming wave of construction is the big take away:

But in most cases, approved projects were still in the pre-construction phase, the Spot Check reporters found. “Construction is supposed to begin the first week of August, but I have yet to see any progress beginning,’’ wrote Coulter Jones, who looked into a $3 million paving project in Luzerne County, Pa.

Reports from the field came in over a two-week period in late July, so it’s possible some have advanced in the meantime. Coulter checked back last week, for instance, and found that work had begun on the Pennsylvania project.

In some cases, construction delays appeared to be the result of contractors’ schedules rather than red tape.

Looks like there’s some construction coming your way (no matter where you live).

The Health Care Debate and the Marvel of Permalinks

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Read the Bill with Scrabble tilesRecently, we at OpenCongress have received a lot of requests to see the text of the America’s Affordable Health Choices Act (HR 3200) with page numbers. There’s no denying this is a complex piece of legislation with far-reaching effects on Americans and the economy, and I think there’s a genuine movement by Americans to understand the bill and debate specific points.

For example, there’s an e-mail going around that mentions sections of the bill and refers to the page number where the point is located:

PG 427  Lines 15-24 Govt mandates program for orders for end of life
The Govt has a say in how your life ends

As the above makes clear, it’s still a struggle to easily “compare notes” on legislation. You’d have to find a PDF of the bill, download it, read the section, and then send an e-mail back. Adding to the difficulty is what happens when the bill is marked up in committee or amended on the House floor. Now you’re dealing with another PDF entirely, so the page numbers you were referring to earlier don’t line up anymore.

Fortunately, we’ve made it pretty easy to debate specific sections of legislation here at OpenCongress.

Check out the text of HR 3200, and you’ll notice there are “Comment” and “Permalink” buttons whenever you mouseover a section or clause. Those permalinks let you reference a specific section or clause of the bill. So, say you wanted to blog about the specific section mentioned in the quote above. That’s easy! Here’s a link:

A program for orders for life sustaining treatment for a States described in this clause is a program that[…]

And what if you want to debate the point? Just register for an OpenCongress account, and you can comment on this and every bill in Congress, section-by-section.

We’ll have more on this later, but I encourage you to check out the permalink feature when you’re referring to specific sections of the bill.

(P.S. For the record, OpenCongress doesn’t include page numbers on bills because the Library of Congress doesn’t publish bills that way.)

Cross-posted at OpenCongress.org