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Members of Congress Catch 72-Hour Bug From Constituents

Congress has caught the 72-hour bug. It’s not a new strain of flu but an infectious form of transparentitis that’s sweeping the nation. And Members are catching it from their constituents.

[IMGCAP(1)]It most recently surfaced as a net-roots movement called Read to Vote, which is short for “Read the bill before you vote.— Launched as a nonpartisan citizen action movement, the campaign is urging people, through paid ads, to sign petitions “to insist my representatives read every word of every bill before voting and I’ll try myself!— Since its inception on Sept. 9, the group has attracted over 106,000 citizen signers to its online petition.

In the House of Representatives, the sentiment had already been captured in a more realistic, bipartisan rule change introduced in June by Reps. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) and John Culberson (R-Texas). H.Res. 554 would require that all bills, reports and conference reports be posted on the Internet at least 72 hours prior to consideration by the House. The rule could be waived only by a two-thirds vote.

The resolution also expresses the “sense of the House— that any substantial amendments made in order to bills “be posted on the Internet for an appropriate number of hours.— That amounts to a big loophole because it would exempt from the 72-hour requirement entire majority leadership substitutes for bills — a procedural device used with increasing frequency in the Rules Committee.

Two weeks ago, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) filed Discharge Petition No. 6 on the Baird resolution to force it out of the House Rules Committee. Of the 218 signatures needed to trigger a floor vote, 182 Members have signed on so far, including six Democrats. In arguing for the petition, Walden pointed out that House Members had just 12 hours to read the 1,073-page stimulus bill, costing $787 billion, and 16.5 hours to read the 1,428-page, $846 billion cap-and-trade bill. “Let’s bring sunshine into the process,— he urged, and “allow Americans, their Representatives and the press the time to read these bills before we have to vote on them here on the House floor.—

On Sept. 25, sophomore Democratic Rep. Tim Walz (Minn.) circulated a counter-petition urging Members to co-sign a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) thanking them for “bringing transparency back to this chamber since Democrats were elected to the majority in 2006.— The letter takes note of Baird’s proposed rule change but points out that House rules already give Members three days “for review of legislation and the drafting of amendments.—

The quick responses to these claims are: “Yes,— the rules require a three-day layover for reported bills and conference reports, but those rules are routinely waived by the Rules Committee, backed by House majorities; and, “No,— any amendments, including entire leadership substitutes, that originate in the Rules Committee have only a next-day layover requirement (that is usually less than 24 hours).

The Walz letter concludes by asking that “the Leadership of the House strive to meet … [Baird’s 72-hour] standard with all major legislation, with only the rarest and most necessary exceptions.— The clever countermove gave at least some nervous Democrats a chance, on record, to “agree with the intent— of the Baird transparency proposal, and 24 Members did so.

During the 103rd Congress (1993-94), a similar national transparency campaign took place to require immediate public disclosure of the signatures on House discharge petitions rather than wait until the requisite 218 signatures had been obtained. Spearheaded by then-Rep. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and backed by former presidential candidate Ross Perot, the effort prevailed over Democratic leadership opposition, ironically, by using a discharge petition. Republicans took control of Congress at the next election.

This time, even the Senate is catching the transparency bug. During the Senate Finance Committee’s consideration of the health care reform bill two weeks ago, Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), with the support of Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), offered a transparency motion that was narrowly defeated, 11-12. The problem of transparency is especially acute in the Finance Committee, where Members offer and vote on “conceptual amendments— (summaries of intent), leaving it to staff to later draft the actual legislative language.

Bunning’s motion would have ensured that the final bill language would be available on the Internet 72 hours before the committee voted to report the measure. Instead, the committee approved a motion by Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to require that the Congressional Budget Office cost estimate and a plain-English explanation of the bill be posted on the Internet in advance of the vote.

The hubbub in the heartland over the meanings and consequences behind the dense legalese of the health bill was on full display during the August town hall meetings. Person after person stood and waved copies of the voluminous House version at their Representatives, asking whether they had read it. Many came to learn; a few came to parrot squawk-radio; and Members came to educate, listen and endure.

Public anxiety over a massive health care overhaul is understandable because nearly everyone will be affected by it. Continued high unemployment, rising deficits and anger over billions in missing bailout dollars only compound that anxiety. That the people should be curious about what their government is doing is an attribute integral to democratic citizenship. That their elected Representatives should know the important issues they are voting on is a moral imperative.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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