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Evading Read the Bill

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As House Republican leaders examine their options for House reforms, the 72 Hour Rule, or ReadTheBill, is always near the top of the list.

The form this reform will take, though, is far from clear.

Daniel recently gave details on the technical limitations a 72 Hour rule will face, noting that bills need to be shared better -- on THOMAS, in a machine-readable format, and available in bulk -- in order to maximize reuse online.

In addition to those technological hurdles, procedural hurdles also stand in the way of an effective 72 Hour Rule.

Presumptive Speaker Boehner has already taken one step past Speaker Pelosi on the ReadtheBill front, by committing to putting all non-emergency legislation online for 72 hours. The form this reform takes, however, will determine its strength and reliability.

Here are some procedural complications that could weaken a 72 Hour Rule.

Is it a rules change? It's unclear, so far, whether the 72 Hour Rule will be codified as a change to the House rules. Most focused advocacy for the ReadtheBill effort has focused on a particular proposal, H.Res 554 in the 111th Congress, which is primarily a rules change. If Republicans don't pass a rules change, then the rule will continue as an informal commitment from the Speaker of the House, with an uncertain future. A future Speaker wouldn't have to undo anything to walk away from it, and neither would Boehner, should he choose to.

What about amendments? H.Res. 554 punts on amendments. The bill actually contains Sense of the House language, basically asserting that major amendments should be online for an appropriate period of time. While this may seem like an oversight, further reflection reveals that requirements for amendments to be online can be tricky. Imagine if all bills were online for 72 hours before floor consideration, and all amendments were online for 72 hours before the same floor consideration. If that's the case, then no one can amend the bill they're reading, since the deadline for amendments would have already passed. The solution here may be to require bills to be online for 72 hours and amendments online for 24, but there's no clear consensus that that's the right solution. And that brings us to the second problem relating to amendments.

What about manager's amendments? Even if all amendments were online for one day before floor consideration, it's likely that large, contentious bills would get enormous managers amendments introduced at the last possible moment (whenever that moment may be). If it's just a day, that may still be a very short period of time to read and evaluate what may be an enormous and complex pile of compromises. Worse, these last minute changes are often the most contentious features of the bill -- they're the things being negotiated, after all. A strong, reliable 72 hour rule will eventually need to address managers amendments, and the complex negotiations they inevitably contain.

Depending on one's ideological relationship to any legislation in question, those negotiations can represent anything from valuable bipartisan compromise and careful deliberation all the way to vote-buying and backroom deals. One's feelings about the 72 hour rule also follow a similar pattern. How else do Michael Moore's meditation on the USA PATRIOT Act and the Republican opposition to the health care bill end up on the same script?

The Rules Committee Can Waive the Rules. Most bills are passed in the House under special rules, which govern debate, and can waive any House rule. Even rules about the Rules Committee can be waived by a rule reported out of the Rules committee and passed on the floor. Republican leadership, especially Eric Cantor, have been vocal about what they term a return to "regular order," but the Rules Committee is an extension of the prerogatives of the Speaker, one of the defining characteristics of the House. If the Senate is deliberative and slow, the House is decisive and authoritative, and the authority is the Speaker's, often expressed through the majority party's disproportionate control of the Rules Committee.

Self Executing Rules can change bills. Similarly, the special Rules from the Rules Committee can contain language that changes bills, essentially functioning as an amendment. Both parties have objected strongly to the other party's use of such rules, but, to our knowledge, no one has suggested a viable mechanism for reigning in this prerogative of the Rules Committee.

Conference Reports may be tricky. Most legislation will need to pass both chambers of Congress and go through a Conference Committee before heading to the President's desk. 72 hours for the initial House version would be nice, but without a chance to see what comes out of Conference, we won't know what's in the final law until too late. This can be tough, because each chamber can make changes to what comes out of the conference committee, and send the legislation back and forth. Should every iteration, if there are several, be subjected to 72 hours anew? We faced this difficulty before, and hedged, saying that conference reports and any major changes that follow should be online for 72 hours.

Is the Rule powerful? In addition to the fact that House Rules are waivable, some House Rules are simply ignored. A powerful 72 Hour Rule (like H.Res. 554) will change what is in order, effectively empowering the minority to raise a point of order against an offending motion. Without such an appeal to procedure, the requirement would be far weaker. Changes to the Congressional Record, for example, are supposed to only be typographical or grammatical, but Members regularly make far more substantive changes to their remarks as they appear. This is against the Rules, but essentially, no one cares. Even the best rule will need popular expectations to back it up.

This is actually true for all of the complications we've identified. Even the most well meaning 72 Hour Rule will be a seductive sacrifice for any Speaker who is faced with a potential legislative achievement. These are probably only some of the ways a public posting requirement could be evaded. Congressional floor procedures are incredibly complicated, and governed not just by Rules, but by complex precedents. The real arbiter of acceptable congressional procedure will ultimately always be the electorate. No one else can, or even should, have that kind of power of Congress.

Even so, we're hoping Speaker Boehner and Republican leaders choose to codify a strong, effective 72 Hour rule, and lives up to his promise, even when it's inconvenient, as he has readily acknowledged it will be.