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Read the Bill Reality

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The House is about to adopt rules changes for the 112th Congress that will bring Congress closer to Sunlight’s goal of ensuring the American public has the opportunity to read all bills before they are considered on the House floor. The Rules committee may have overstated the breadth of its accomplishment—and made liberal use of ellipses—when it stated that the new rule provides, “it shall not be in order to consider a bill or joint resolution which has not been reported by a committee until the third calendar day…on which such measure has been publicly available in electronic form.” The actual language of the rule doesn’t go quite that far. But, the changes to the House Rules, combined with the new majority’s pledge to ensure a more transparent Congress, should make it far more likely that the public will be able to “Read the Bill” before it is considered on the House floor.

Sunlight applauds the majority’s effort to make this goal of 72-hour public access to all bills a reality. Rushed bills result in wasteful spending, unintended consequences and hidden favors for special interests. Legislation will be improved if the public has more time to digest a bill and point out potential flaws to Members of Congress while there is still time to fix them.

The new House rules embrace that concept by creating a “point of order” that would prevent consideration of any bill that has not been available to Members for three calendar days. Previous rules created a point of order only for bills that had been reported by committee. The new rule closes that loophole and, even though points of order are easily and regularly waived, makes it clear that the intention of the leadership is to ensure availability of all bills. By directing the Committee on House Administration to create standards for making House documents available in electronic form, the majority again demonstrates its commitment to public online availability of bills.

The rules are not perfect—though it has to be said that it would be easy to circumvent any rule requiring online public access to bills. Despite the hype, the rules do not explicitly mandate online public availability, leaving open some possibility that bills may be voted on even if the public has not had the chance to review them online. Moreover, the “third calendar day” yardstick for determining whether a bill is ripe for consideration could result in a bill being available for less than 72 hours. Sunlight has advocated using a “72 hour” time frame instead of three calendar days to prevent possible gamesmanship.

Nevertheless our enthusiasm for the rules change is only mildly tempered by these shortcomings. The spirit of the changes makes us optimistic that all bills will publicly available, online, for at least 72 hours before they are considered. The new majority is off to a good start. The House is expected to vote on the rules change legislation tomorrow--and it has been online and publicly available since before Christmas!