BAIRD ASKS COLLEAGUES TO ACTUALLY READ BILLS
By Jeff Kosseff
** The Washington State Democrat wants legislation to be posted 72 hours before votes **
Oregonian (Portland, OR)
December 18, 2006
WASHINGTON -- Rep. Brian Baird was among the first politicians to air an unsettling secret: Members of Congress don't usually read bills before voting on them.
Democratic congressional candidates seized on that problem this year, complaining that the Republican leadership passes thousand-page bills in the middle of the night with an hour's notice.
"Information is power," said Steve Ellis, vice president for programs at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group that monitors government spending. "Leadership in Congress has historically tried to hoard that power by hoarding the information."
But even with Democrats moving into the majority next month, it's unlikely they will pass Baird's full proposal to post the bills on the Internet 72 hours before the House votes on them. Baird probably will receive a scaled-back compromise.
The Southwest Washington Democrat's fight illustrates the difficulty in making Congress even slightly more transparent. He said he expects some improvements in House procedure, but he isn't counting on his full proposal to pass.
"It's like everything back there," Baird said. "People become accustomed to the status quo."
Late-night, secretive votes have been a problem in the House for years. One recent example is the provision in a defense bill that eliminates the office of U.S. inspector general in Iraq. Many legislators said they didn't know that was in the bill until after they voted on it in September.
"If they could have read the legislation, they would have known and this wouldn't have happened," said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the Washington, D.C., office of the American Library Association, which supports Baird's bill. "A lot of the problems the Congress had in the last session could have been solved by something like this."
Technically, House rules already require legislators to wait three days before voting. But that requirement can be waived if a majority of House members vote to do so.
They almost always do.
Baird's proposal would require a "supermajority" of two-thirds of House members to waive his 72-hour requirement. The practical consequence: last-minute votes would require agreement from both Democrats and Republicans.
When the House convenes in January, its first vote will be on the procedural rules to govern the two-year legislative session. Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is working on the package of rules this month, spokesman Drew Hammill said.
"She has said she wants members to have adequate time to review legislation," Hammill said. "We're working out the best way to achieve that."
Baird said he is "pretty confident" that Democratic leaders will require a supermajority to waive the waiting period. But he said it probably will be 24 hours, not 72 hours.
"We're still pushing for 72 vigorously," he said, "and I'm fairly optimistic that if we don't get 72, we will at least get 24, which is remarkably better than the current situation."
Some opposition comes from senior members who are accustomed to making last-minute deals, Baird said. His proposal, they say, would make legislative deal-making more difficult.
"I say, I understand that, but we just moved the last minute 24 hours earlier," Baird said. "It's sort of like when people first heard about daylight-saving time, that it would be the end of the earth."
The seemingly minor rule change would require "a real adjustment" in how the House operates, Baird said. "It really does shine a bright light on the legislative process. It's sort of like product labeling for the sausage factory."
At Taxpayers for Common Sense, Ellis says 24 hours' notice is an improvement, but "not enough time" for the public to thoroughly analyze the bills.
"Really, is 72 hours that long?" Ellis asked. "Is it really that crippling to have that information available for people to review and scrutinize it? I don't think so."
Even if the House doesn't enact a tough proposal such as Baird's, the leadership still can operate more transparently in practice, said Rafael DeGennaro, a former congressional staffer who founded ReadtheBill.org, an advocacy group that supports Baird's legislation.
"Almost anything the Democrats do next Congress," DeGennaro said, "will be miles better than the god-awful Republican record of hiding bills from their own members, the public, and the media."