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Baird Seeks More Bill Transparency

A resolution introduced last week by Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) would amend House rules to require that legislation and conference reports be made available online 72 hours before being considered by the chamber.

It’s not a new idea, as Baird has pushed similar proposals in past Congresses. But it is one the five-term lawmaker thinks should be taken seriously as a way to increase openness while also helping to identify costly last-minute add-ons to legislation.

“Most people spend a whole lot more time buying a house than we get to read a bill,” Baird noted.

As of Monday afternoon, a bipartisan group of eight Members had signed on as co-sponsors, including Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Jim Matheson (D-Utah), Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) and Timothy Johnson (R-Ill.).

Baird’s plan would let “Members have an opportunity to view bills so they have time to digest the legislation,” a Jackson Lee aide said. “The more the process is improved, the better it is.”

But Baird admitted that his measure faces an uphill battle, as Members on both sides of the aisle might be unwilling to give up flexibility in scheduling floor matters.

A Democratic leadership aide echoed that prediction.

“Seventy-two hours would be very difficult for leadership to proceed with items on the floor,” the aide said.

But Democrats have created more transparency than in previous Congresses, the aide noted, pointing to a rules change initiated this session that requires a 24-hour waiting period before a bill can be brought to the floor.

“We kept to that pledge on the 24 hours,” the aide said. “And we think right now this best serves the needs of the House, both Democrats and Republicans.”

Despite the obstacles, Democratic leaders should approve Baird’s legislation, said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, which works to make more government documents available online.

When the Democrats took the reins, they promised to increase public availability of Congressional documents, Miller recalled, adding that putting legislation and conference reports online for a few days is “kind of a no-brainer.”

“To me, it is a necessary piece of Congressional transparency,” she said.

It is in conference where “all sorts of things happen” to legislation without being noticed, Baird explained. Often these changes are subtle, overlooked by Members and their staff who are simply trying to comprehend what legislation means, he said.

“It’s not just about what’s been inserted and what’s taken out,” he said. “Even if the language of the bill is there, it can be hard to understand.”

Baird recalled a 2003 debate he had on the House floor with Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) over Medicare legislation. Baird’s concern was not necessarily with the bill itself, but rather that he didn’t know what a section of the measure sought to do.

And since Members had less than 24 hours to figure it all out, Baird decided to go to the floor to get an explanation.

“I spent 23 years of my life in health care,” Baird said at the time. “I hold a doctorate in clinical psychology. I have spent hours on this bill. My eyes are exhausted. I must say I do not know fully well enough what is in it.”

Baird also said his bill would prove helpful to the public, giving interest groups, journalists and average Americans the means and time to carefully analyze legislation.

And Baird added that he is concerned about mission creep at the end of the year, when Members are in a rush to get back to their districts.

“That’s when the problems can arise,” he said.

Even if the bill does not get through Congress, Baird said he is hopeful “that the leadership would be able to follow the spirit of the bill.”

“I respect and understand that,” Baird said of the challenges a 72-hour waiting period could pose for leadership. “And in fairness, there have been some very important bills brought up with adequate time to read them.”

Despite the new forms of transparency cited by the leadership aide — making more documents available online and urging committees to host webcasts of their hearings — the public is still skeptical of what is actually going on, Baird said.

“When I raise the issue at town halls … when I tell people we haven’t had time to read legislation, they shake their heads,” he added.

Giving everybody more time to read the final drafts of legislation is one way to solve this, Miller said.

“I think it has the potential for true popular support,” Miller said of the bill. “I can’t imagine a single person in the United States who wouldn’t support a requirement that gives Members of Congress more time to review legislation.”

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