There were two developments today that should remind people of the importance of giving the public the chance to read and weigh in on legislation before it is debated in Congress. First, Reps. Greg Walden (R-OR), John Culberson (R-TX) and Brian Baird (D-WA) filed a “discharge petition” in the House regarding H. Res. 554, a bill that would ensure legislation is online for 72-hours before a vote. The bill has been languishing in the House for many months—years, if you include versions that have been introduced in prior Congresses—and a discharge petition is a way to force a bill to the floor for a vote, if the petition gets the signatures of 218 Representatives.
Sunlight is a champion of H. Res. 554, and we've been working to build support for the measure so that members of the public (as well as the press, Members of Congress and their staff) have an opportunity to read legislation while there is still time to fix it. Had there been a 72-hour rule in place before the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, due consideration could have been given to whether the vast expansion of the federal government’s ability to engage in secret searches of U.S. citizens was warranted. Had there been a 72-hour rule in place when Congress passed the Best Pharmaceuticals for Children Act of 2007, consumer advocates could have warned Members of Congress that the bill included weak safety standards for FDA reviews of drugs and medical devices. Had a 72-hour rule been in place before any omnibus appropriations bill was passed, billions of dollars of wasteful government spending could have been eliminated.
Instead, only a handful of congressional staffers and possibly a few well-connected lobbyists knew exactly what was in those bills, and many others, before they came to the floor mere hours after they were introduced.
H. Res. 554 would help ensure that rushed bills become a thing of the past. If a discharge petition is the only way to get a vote on this piece of legislation, we’re all for it. But, we’d prefer the bill made it to the House floor for a vote through regular order, in a more thoughtful and deliberative manner. We would support a hearing on the issue so that any objections to the bill could be raised and addressed in an open and public forum. We are, after all, fundamentally trying to create a system where better bills become law.
And that leads to the second “Read the Bill” development of the day. The Washington Post editorialized against an effort by “ReadtoVote” to have Members of Congress sign a pledge never to vote on a bill unless they have read every word of it. We agree with much of the sentiment in the Post’s editorial. We don’t want to bring Congress to a standstill. We don’t want to stop legislation in its tracks. We don’t believe every Member of Congress can read every word of every piece of legislation that comes up for a vote. We differ from the good folks at “ReadtoVote” because we put our emphasis on making the bills available online to the public for 72 hours. We put our trust in the public—including the press, interest groups, membership organizations, for-profit and nonprofit corporations and labor unions—and believe that they can digest the bills that truly matter to them and express their opinions to their representatives in Congress. We call for the legislation to be online for 72 hours before debate so that there is chance to fix what’s wrong with a bill before it’s time to vote.
Today’s developments demonstrate that more and more people recognize that rushing significant pieces of legislation is no way to run a country. We expect this issue to continue to gain traction, and we’ll keep working on it, until everyone has a chance to read the bill.