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.

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  • G-MAN5284

    Amen, Elaine…it’s long past time for a national referendum where the people can vote to amend the constitution with an amendment that imposes congressional term limits. Much of the problem could be allieviated if we could do away with the idea of “career politicians”. Much of the problems with healthcare could be handled with tort reform. This will never happen because most career politicians are lawyers as are their most staunch supporters. It is sad to say that legislation is for sale in the United States. Congressional Term Limits and Tort Reform Now!

  • G-MAN5284

    If they can’t read it, we don’t need it…’nuff said.

  • currently, the health care system in the U.S. is running in what an engineer would call ‘open-loop’ mode. the individual is the consumer of the service, but the employer is the customer. health-care costs per employee are approaching 30% to 40% of the gross salary, but because the employee is not directly impacted by the costs, he sees no reason to watch them; after all, ‘somebody else’ is paying. with almost nobody watching costs, it is virtually certain that costs will increase as rapidly as they can be ratcheted up by providers. providers can’t be blamed for trying to maximize profits, and consumers can’t be blamed when there’s no upside to watching costs. the ones who have imposed this stupid system – the U.S. Congress – are the ones at fault.

    HSAs are the way to go, but only if the employer spends the same amount, AND the Federal government allows the funds to remain pre-tax, AND the funds become the property of the employee to be spent as he sees fit. when the money belongs to the employee (or MediCare recipient), he’ll watch it a lot more closely. unfortunately, the current law enabling HSAs allows employers to *stop* spending the same amount per employee. my employer has an HSA plan, but instead of depositing the money otherwise spent on an 80%-20% or PPO or HMO plan into the HSA, *i* get to spend the money out of my paycheck. of course i can’t come up with the extra funds (~$15,000.00 to $30,000.00 per year), so i can’t afford an HSA. for my employer, the few who can afford an HSA preresent a significant amount of money that does not need to be spent on benefits.

    the worst part is that the enemies of HSAs can point to companies like my employer and say that HSAs don’t work. although they’re currently broken, they can be fixed, but in all likelihood, Congress will hose the system even more. i can hardly wait.

  • Bob

    After watching the spendthrifts in DC I did what research I could and found the healthcare system can be fixed at no cost to the American Taxpayer. This program streamlines the system, shifts responsibilty and is based on two premises. The first being congress has no idea what broke it and second any one who is a non citizen shold not pose a burden on the taypayer. The outline of the program is less than 2 pages long. If this interests you please email me for the outline.

  • rbblum

    If an established ‘third party’ does not lend fairness and balance to the existing two party political party system, then additional suggestions would be encouraged to be posted for further consideration.

    And, if the reason(s) why any individual would want to blindly identify with any specific political party can be presented or clarified, please share.

  • Ktulu

    I completely agree with Elaine

  • Elaine

    Of course there is too much legislation.

    If Congress operated under the authority given them by the Constitution rather than under their own authority, the thousands and thousands of bills passed through this body would not exist.

    It’s beyond time American voters demand the three branches of the federal government stop overstepping their Constitutional authority!

  • Peter

    Perhaps there is simply too much legislation.
    “According to the Washington, DC-based Competitive Enterprise Institute’s 2009 edition of “Ten Thousand Commandments” by Clyde Crews, the cost of abiding federal regulations is estimated at $1.172 trillion in 2008 – 8% of the year’s GDP.”

    “This “regulation without representation,” says Crews, enables the funding of new federal initiatives through the compliance costs of expanded regulations, rather than hiking taxes or expanding the deficit.”

  • This was an informative, balanced piece, Paul, I really enjoyed it. I’d really like to hear more statements from members of the House and Senate about how they think a 72-hour restriction would impact their daily lives, and the culture of their respective body. I’d especially be interested to hear about the downsides of a 72-hour rule, even if they’re downsides worth accepting.

  • John Thacker

    “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.”

    Wow, what a biased comment. You could at least say his “move to refuse to pass appropriations bills that President Clinton hadn’t credibly threatened to veto.”

    It does take two sides for negotiations to fail. Clinton threatened to veto any budget that looked like the ones Gingrich and the Republicans wanted to pass; Gingrich and the Republicans refused to pass any other kind of budget.