When we elect people to serve in Congress, we send them there as our representatives. In exchange for giving them our authority to make national decisions, they have the responsibility to provide us with sufficient information so that we can provide feedback on their decisions and gauge how well they represent us.
Unfortunately, our current national leadership has scotched that understanding. Thousand-page federal bills with trillion-dollar price tags rushed through Congress are becoming the norm, disturbing to many voters.
Too many in the current Congress belittle their constituents’ requests to read the bills and make the actual bill language available to the public. “We don’t have time to read the bills and voters would misunderstand them.” The U.S. Congress might reflect on what these monstrously complex bills create – the solemn force of U.S. law.
Last month, the Polling Company found that 95 percent of Americans believe that Congress should not vote on bills until read in full. A recent Zogby poll found that 91 percent supported posting all non-emergency legislation on the Internet for three days prior to final passage.
Last June, a bipartisan team of House members – including John Culberson (TX-R), Brian Baird (WA-D) and Greg Walden (OR-R) – filed HR 554 to bind Congress to a 72-hour online access rule. Although the bill garnered rare bipartisan support, it could not get out of committee.
In late September, these members tried another path and filed a discharge petition to bring the bill directly to the floor. The discharge petition now has 182 of the required 218 signatures.
Not only has there been no traction in the U.S. Senate, the Senate Finance Committee narrowly rejected an amendment to its health care bill requiring 72-hour online access to the final bill.
The importance of allowing time for legislators and the public to read the final language of a bill before floor votes has long been recognized in federal and state legislative procedures. The U.S. Congress already has rules requiring all bills to be read orally three times in entirety, with a 24-hour interval after first reading and a week interval between second and third readings. Both chambers, however, readily suspend those rules.
There are short bills with minimal cost or controversy, and there are massive bills with unprecedented cost and consequence. This year’s record-setting bills unquestionably merit sufficient time and access for legislator and voter scrutiny.The leviathan 1,500-page climate bill passed by the House was described by a proponent as “the most complex piece of legislation in U.S. history.” With 1,000 new mandates and cost of $822 billion, the climate bill was rammed through the House floor in less than a day. The final language, including a 300-page amendment, appeared at 3 a.m. the morning of passage.
In February, the $787 billion stimulus bill passed by a swift and forced march to floor vote. Members had access to the final bill only 12 hours before floor action began. And now, the health care “concept papers” with trillion dollar costs bounce around committees without actual bill language available to a most interested public or even the CBO.
In his campaign, President Barack Obama promised to restore transparency by posting final bills on a website for five days before he signed them. Since taking office, he has effectively abandoned that pledge.
What a bizarre issue in our democracy! What justification exists for Congress to pass laws they have not read and to refuse to make bills available to the public before final passage? Patronizing dismissal of the electorate’s capability to grasp bill language might not be wise for those hired to represent them.
“This is not a partisan issue; it’s an American issue,” Baird and Culberson wrote in a letter on the 72-hour rule. “It’s high time to deliver the change that ensures the rank and file representatives and Americans across the nation receive full transparency in the legislative process.”
Law is a most solemn product of our representative democracy. It concretizes the will of the supreme power of the state and binds all citizens to obey. Indeed, the fate of nations has been shaped by wise and unwise laws.
Take the time. Our Congress must not only read these bills but let us do the same.
Kathleen Hartnett White is Distinguished Senior Fellow in Residence and Director of the Armstrong Center for Energy & the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin. White is the former Chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.