Read the Bill: The (Long) Short Story


In case you needed the short version of the full history of Congress and Read the Bill, please read below. Just to fit this into a blog post, I’m starting in 1965 and not 1789. I thought that after the rushed cap and trade vote and the upcoming health care reform vote it would be important to provide some background on Congress’ habit of not reading bills:

In the mid-1960s, a movement was afoot among young, liberal members of Congress to reform the way the legislative branch operated. Opacity and centralized power were their enemies. Openness and diffusion of power were the solutions. In a 1965 report issued by the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, one such area where openness was ascribed as a means to diffuse power was the time allowed to study bills prior to consideration:

A bill that cannot survive a 3-day scrutiny of its provisions is a bill that should not be enacted. Proper consideration must be given to important legislation, even in the closing days of a session. The world’s most powerful legislature cannot in good conscience deprive its membership of a brief study of a committee report prior to final action.

Prior to the issuance of this report, Congress had mandated a 1-day layover for bills in the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. Soon Congress would pass a new reogranization bill. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 contained a provision requiring a 3-day (calendar day, not legislative day) layover for all bills and committee reports prior to a bill being considered.

This change was made within the House and Senate rules, which are maleable, shifting guidelines, not strict laws of the land. The rule did not require any type of majority to waive the 3-day layover requirement and soon the rule would be waived repeatedly to pass large pieces of legislation that the majority wanted passed in a hurry. By the late-1980s, a new practice emerged in Congress: the combination appropriations bill, then derisively known as omnibus appropriations bills. These bills, which have become a more regular feature of Congress in recent years, could measure in length of thousands of pages, taking a staff days or weeks to read, parse and understand. Few of these bills were given adequate time for neither reading, parsing nor understanding. And if wisdom comes from understanding, then Congress was left none the wiser.

For most of the omnibus bills passed, the 3-day layover rule was waived. Back then, newspapers and trade magazines actually noted the waiving of this rule. Today, it goes without mention.

As the seasons turned from the decade of glitz and greed to grunge and gangsta rap, the political winds in Congress shifted in favor from the majority Democrats to the minority Republicans. Republicans, smelling blood, took up the ethics mantle as a cudgel against a Democratic House that had become stale, abusive of House rules and riddled with corruption scandals. One such abuse of House rules to be used against the majority was the consistent waiver of the 3-day layover rule. Bills were passed with no time to read them.

In 1992, Rep. Harris Falwell called for a 2/3rds majority vote to waive the 3-day layover rule. This would later become a central piece of the Read the Bill legislation currently offered by Rep. Brian Baird in the 110th Congress. The other central piece of Baird’s Read the Bill legislation could not have been introduced in 1992 as the platform for distribution had yet to be created.

In 1993, the World Wide Web opened the Internet to the wider public and the Mosaic browser quickly followed to allow for much greater interface capabilities through the various nodes of the Net. Congressional lawmakers quickly began moving operations online. In 1995, the new Republican majority launched the legislative search web site, THOMAS.

Despite increasing the ability of the public to receive bills and bill information over the Internet, the Republican majority continued to waive the 3-day layover rule just as they had complained the Democrats did. During this period, many rushed pieces of legislation were the result of Speaker Gingrich’s failed efforts to shut down the government. In the wake of the public rejection of his move to refuse funding for government operations, the House was forced to quickly rush large appropriations bills through the chamber to begin funding again.

But the 3-day layover waivers did not stop at crises akin to the government shutdown. Over the course of the 12 year Republican reign in the House, bills became bigger and were passed faster. By the last few years of House Republican rule, under Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the rushing of bills became a fiasco.

In 2006, Rep. Brian Baird introduced legislation that would require, like Rep. Falwell’s 1992 proposal, a 2/3rds vote on waiving the 3-day layover rule and the public distribution of all legislation for 72 hours prior to consideration. These two ideas married both the diffusion of power within Congress presented by 1960s reformers with the diffusion of power to the people provided for by the connectivity of the populace through the Internet. The Democrats rallied to Baird’s proposal, including it as part of an ethics platform, just as the Republicans had in 1994. But, history has a way of repeating itself.

After sweeping back into power after 12 years, House Democrats passed a massive ethics reform bill. They failed to include Baird’s Read the Bill legislation in the reform package. To this day, the 3-day layover rule is waived with regularity and bills are rushed through Congress.

While it’s easy to fault the current Congress for process abuses like the waiving of the 3-day layover rule, it should always be remembered that this is a process that has been born of institutional abuse over time. Like drug addicts, it’s hard to stop abusing once you’ve started. (Or rather, like Pringles: once you pop, you just can’t stop.) The efforts at diffusion of power through allowing lawmakers more time to study legislation had largely fallen by the wayside as Speakers, starting in the 1980s, sought to reconsolidate power that reformers in the 1960s and 1970s had spread around Congress.

While the reformers of that era sought to create more independence and spread more power among individual members of Congress, the Read the Bill legislation — along with the many other transparency provisions supported here — are aimed at diffusing power to the people writ large (that’s you I’m talking about). Thanks to the Internet we can distribute that power back to us by getting the information we need to hold elected officials, and sometimes ourselves, to account. Transparency provides knowledge and knowledge is power.