A messy end to a bad farm bill

Now let’s look at last week’s farm bill procedural snafu.

Last Wednesday we thought the farm bill veto would be straightforward:

  • Congress passes the farm bill conference report and sends it to the President. There are several steps in this process.
    • The bill is passed by both Houses. That’s the “engrossed bill.”
    • This engrossed bill is then “enrolled.” This means the House (or Senate) Clerk assembles the actual parchment copy, which is then signed by the Speaker of the House (Pelosi) and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate (Byrd).
  • The enrolled bill is then sent to the President by the House (or Senate) clerk. The technical term is the bill is “presented” to the President. (“Presented” is in Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution.)
  • The President then vetoes it by returning it to the Congress with his objections, and specifically, to the House that sent it to him (in this case, the House of Representatives).
  • Both Houses then vote on whether to override the veto. If more than 2/3 of both houses votes aye, the bill becomes law despite the President’s veto. If not, the bill dies.

Things got messy. Here’s what actually happened:

Congress passed the farm bill conference report. The engrossed bill was OK.

  • In the enrollment process, the House Clerk accidentally left out Title III, which covers agricultural trade and international food aid.
  • Speaker Pelosi and President Pro Tem (PPT) of the Senate Byrd signed the enrolled bill (missing Title III), and the Clerk presented (sent) it to the President.
  • The President vetoed the bill presented to him, by returning it to the House with a veto message stating his objections. Note that the bill the President vetoed is different than the bill the House and Senate actually voted for.
  • The House then took up the returned bill (still missing Title III) and voted to override the President’s veto. The bill was sent to the Senate, which did the same.
  • From the perspective of the Executive Branch, that bill (with no Title III) is now law, despite being different bill from what the Members of Congress voted for and thought they were sending to the President.
  • Now Congress has to pass a new bill that deals with Title III to correct their error.

How can this be the case? A Supreme Court decision in the late 19th century (Marshall Field & Co. v. Clark) established that the bill is whatever the Clerk presents to the President as the enrolled bill, even […]