Is It Too Much to Ask Congress to Read Bills Before Voting?

Posted November 18, 2008 at 3:33pm

When Members of Congress moved to bail out Wall Street, they settled on a tried and true, “old school” legislative tactic: Don’t give anyone a chance to read the bill. Negotiations were done in secret, staffers were forced to leave their BlackBerrys at the door and the bill was dropped less than 24 hours before a vote was held.

It is no surprise that the initial legislation failed in the House. No one had time to read the bill, much less a chance to discuss it with their constituents. If Congress were more open, their constituents might trust them to pass a bill of this magnitude. Imagine if Congress were required to wait 72 hours before considering the recent bailout bill.

Current rules are supposed to require bills to wait 72 hours between introduction and consideration, but over the past few years both parties have routinely pushed this edict aside. In the 110th Congress, the rule was ignored on at least 43 important pieces of legislation.

This rule is often cast aside for very important bills: appropriations bills lubed up with earmarks, farm bills with treats for home districts, the USA PATRIOT Act, the Medicare Modernization Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act amendments, energy bills and now the bailout bill. All of these were brought to the floor in less than 72 hours after their unveiling. These bills provided for vast increases in spending, a massive expansion of federal programs and the unfettered growth in power in the executive branch to monitor, detain and spy on American citizens. And no one had time to read them.

With no time to read legislation, provisions that would otherwise never see the light of day are slipped into legislation. Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), the sponsor of a resolution to mandate the 72-hour rule, noted the inclusion of a provision in a 2004 appropriations bill that allowed the House and Senate Appropriations committee staff to access the income tax returns of all Americans. In 2002, the 485-page Homeland Security Act contained a one-page provision providing a liability shield to pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly for its manufacture of a drug that had been linked to autism. The 608-page defense authorization bill in 2006 included a half-page section that eliminated the position of inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction.

Lawmakers (as well as the public) must read legislation, consider it and consult their constituents in a timely fashion. Rushed legislation leads to rushed judgment, and we’ve seen the effects of that before: special provisions for special interests, unaccountable spending, unchecked and unnecessary executive power and less of a voice for the ordinary American.

With the end of the 110th Congress at hand, this is the time to look ahead to a different way of doing business in Congress. When the next Congress is called to order in January, the newly elected body must mandate a 72-hour rule to stop the continued abuse of legislative procedure.

This simple proposal will help provide more time for debate and consideration and allow for citizens to weigh in on important legislation. At this moment, Congress needs to rebuild trust with the American people. By allowing time for lawmakers and citizens alike to read bills before they are voted on, Congress will start down the path toward a new and better relationship with the American public.

Paul Blumenthal is a researcher for the Sunlight Foundation.