House, Senate Pass Different Bills: To Become Law Anyway?

Something fishy happened on Friday, and without further action in Congress it should scuttle the legislation to exempt the Federal Aviation Administration from sequestration-based spending limits. But maybe the old saying, “close only counts in horseshoes and handgrenades,” also applies to Senate unanimous consent agreements. If President Obama gives the bill five days of public review under his Sunlight Before Signing promise, perhaps it can be hashed out before anyone does anything foolish.

You’re probably aware of the background: Across-the-board spending cuts were threatening air travel delays because of FAA furloughs. Late last week, the House and Senate both passed bills to allow the Department of Transportation to move money around, clearing up that problem. (No new spending; just movement of funds from lower priorities to air traffic control.)

As I detailed on the WashingtonWatch.com blog late Saturday, the Senate and then the House passed identical bills, but determined to see the House version passed into law. Because the House would pass its bill after the Senate was gone for the week, the Senate agreed to automatically pass a bill coming from the House “identical” to the one it had passed. Problem solved.

But on Friday afternoon, after the House had passed its identical bill, sponsor Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA) came to the floor and asked unanimous consent to change the word “account” to “accounts” in his bill. The change is a mystery. My guess is that the reference to a singular appropriation account would not allow needed flexibility because there are many FAA accounts. But the change also made the sentence ungrammatical as it has a second reference to a singular account.

Whatever the reason, there was a reason. And after changing the legislation, it was no longer identical to the Senate-passed bill. Thus, the bill sent to the Senate could not be automatically passed. Accordingly, the bill does not go to the president and does not become law.

Now, is the difference between the singular and the plural of the word “account” small enough that the Senate can go ahead and treat the bills as identical? That threatens the meaning of the word “identical.” It certainly mattered in the House. Procedure expert Walter Oleszek calls unanimous consent agreements of this type “akin to a negotiated ‘contract’ among all Senators, [which] can only be changed by another unanimous consent agreement.”

The House-passed bill not being identical to the Senate-passed bill, the better approach is to find that the Senate unanimous consent agreement does not apply, and the House bill should sit in the Senate awaiting further action.

At the time of this writing, no public sources indicate that H.R. 1765 has been passed in the Senate, presented to the president, or signed. If President Obama does receive the bill, he should give it the five days of public review that he promised as a campaigner in 2008. This would allow things to get sorted out, so that we avoid the constitutionally embarassing spectacle (and future Jeopardy/Trivial Pursuit item) of a president sitting down to sign a piece of paper that is not actually a bill readied to become a law.