- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 12, 2009

It’s an open secret on Capitol Hill that most laws get passed without being read in full by lawmakers.

But Democrats, who control Congress and the White House, have found it hard to inaugurate a promised new era of transparency after criticizing Republicans for rushing major pieces of legislation.

The scramble to pass gigantic legislation became clear just weeks after President Obama took office, when members of the House of Representatives were given just 13 hours to examine the final version of a 1,000-plus-page, $787 billion stimulus billdespite a unanimous agreement to allow 48 hours after a conference report before voting.

Subsequent votes on an omnibus spending bill and a children’s health care measure similarly were held with less than the promised time for lawmakers to study the bills.

Just as worrisome for open-government advocates, members of the public don’t always have an opportunity — or a reasonable amount of time — to scrutinize legislation before it is considered on the floor.

“It’d be nice to know what you’re voting on. It’d be nice if our citizens knew what we are voting on,” said Rep. Roscoe G.Bartlett, Maryland Republican. “We’re supposed to have representative government, and they really can’t weigh in about something if they don’t know what it is.”

(Corrected paragraph:) Mr. Bartlett is co-sponsoring a resolution to amend House rules to require non-emergency bills to be available to members 10 days before a vote, with substantive changes requiring an extra three-day wait period.

The Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group devoted to transparency, is pushing a rule change that would require legislation to be posted and available for 72 hours before a vote. Lisa Rosenberg, head of the foundation’s Read the Bill initiative, noted that the current congressional protocol on posting bills is inconsistent.

Lisa Rosenberg, head of the foundation’s Read the Bill initiative, noted that the current congressional protocol on posting bills is inconsistent.

“It is ad hoc,” she said. “Sometimes bills are available on a [House] Rules Committee site; sometimes they’re on the majority leader’s Web site or the speaker’s Web site. Sometimes [the bill] is on the committee of jurisdiction’s site, so you don’t know where you’re actually going to find these bills.”

The aim of the 72-hour-rule, she said, is “to improve the debate between constituents and their representatives. That debate can’t begin unless folks know what members of Congress are doing.”

The Sunlight Foundation has pushed for reform via Twitter, blogging and compiling a bipartisan list of endorsements. An online petition has nearly 8,0000 signatures.

The group is focusing on the House of Representatives right now, but Ms. Rosenberg said it hopes to find a champion in the Senate as well. Forcing bills through quickly is not as much of an issue in the upper chamber, where the rules make it easier for the minority party or even a single senator to hold up action.

Mr. Bartlett said making the bills public for 72 hours is not only good government but would help lawmakers have a better idea of legislation on which they’re voting. In the case of huge legislation such as the stimulus bill, portions are divided among staff members who are responsible for vetting that section.

“The sky’s not going to fall if we pass [a bill] the day after tomorrow,” Mr. Bartlett said. “Even a single staff person doesn’t know what’s in another staff person’s part of the bill. Members have a general perception of what’s in the bill, but the ‘legalese’ and details are frequently left to staff.”

To be sure, the race to pass legislation — and the lack of transparency — are not unique to Democrats. The conference report for a sweeping Medicare reform that passed under the Republican-controlled Congress in September 2006 was filed around 1 a.m. and voted on just five hours later. Ms. Rosenberg also cited the Patriot Act, passed in a rush weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, as another example of far-reaching legislation that members did not have adequate time to read.

“To a degree, both parties have been responsible,” said North Carolina Rep. Walter B. Jones, a co-sponsor of the House resolution, noting that he was one of 25 Republican members to vote against the Medicare bill.

The difference now, some say, is that Democrats under Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised to run the “most open” Congress in history.

“Transparency in government is one of Washington Democrats’ most glaring broken promises,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Minority Leader John A. Boehner. “Already this year, they have passed a trillion-dollar ‘stimulus’ bill that not one member of the House had read, another nearly half-trillion-dollar spending bill stuffed with 9,000 unscrutinized earmarks, and now they are crafting a multi-trillion-dollar national energy tax behind closed doors.”

Mr. Steel said Mr. Boehner would support a 72-hour waiting period before voting on a bill could begin. A spokesman for Mrs. Pelosi did not return a call or an e-mail seeking comment.

Ms. Rosenberg stressed the need for bipartisanship but noted that traditionally it is the party in the minority that pushes for more openness in drafting and passing bills.

“I think the reason is, the majority is afraid that the minority might engage in a little mischief if they try to slow legislation down,” she said. “I don’t know what bad thing could happen if this were actually the law of the land.”

Slowing down legislation might make members think twice about slipping in wasteful projects or controversial provisions at the last minute, she added. In the case of the stimulus bill, a little-noticed provision effectively protecting bonus payments to executives at insurance giant American International Group Inc. sparked an uproar earlier this year.

“We owe it to the American people and the people of our districts that at least we’ve had a reasonable length of time to look at the legislation before we vote on it,” Mr. Jones said.

Mr. Obama pledged during the 2008 campaign to have each bill sent to his desk posted on the White House Web site and open for comments for at least five days before he would sign it. However, he, too, has fallen short, particularly on the same big bills Congress has pushed through.

In late April, the Cato Institute, a free-market think tank, calculated that Mr. Obama had succeeded only once in waiting the full five days before signing a bill. Sometimes he rushed the bill, and other times the White House never posted the text for public comment.

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