September 24th, Speaker Pelosi said that the healthcare bill would be online for 72 hours.
We should recognize this as a milestone. Has it now become unpalatable for House leadership for either party, from now on, to schedule a vote on major legislation before 72 hours of public availability (and that means online) has elapsed? That’s unclear.
Even if Speaker Pelosi hadn’t committed to posting the final healthcare bill for 72 hours, though, it’s pretty hard to imagine such a rushed vote in this case. It invites too significant a political liability. It would empower process-based criticism. Not only would it be a bad idea, it would be a bad idea politically. Minority Leader Boehner would have a field day.
Has something changed?
In January, I made a similar point about the Recovery.gov website. Congress shifted directly from ignoring the Web to struggling with how to create accountability through public disclosure online. From ignoring the utility of the Internet to struggling with how to best harness it.
Something similar is happening here. Public outcry, partisan pressure, and rising expectations are forcing Congress’s hand, and it’s now (apparently) taken as a matter of course that this bill is online for a long weekend before its final consideration.
Pelosi’s initial commitment to a 72 hour period saw far greater coverage than that commitment’s fulfillment. That’s to be expected — controversy is more compelling than compliance.
What’s important here, though, is what we make of this move.
If having bills exposed for the public, Members of Congress, and their staff really is important, then we need to be sure that the raised bar stays raised.
Will the new standard applied to this version of the healthcare bill apply to more minor legislation? Will future controversial initiatives all be available for inspection in the same way this bill is?
Only if that’s our expectation.
Ultimately, even H.Res. 554 depends on expectations. House Rules can be waived, and if no one cares, then there are no consequences.
If public demand is high enough however, H.Res 554 can become moot, and all bills will be available for at least a minimum of scrutiny.
That so many take Speaker Pelosi’s commitment as granted, when it was news a month ago implies that such expectations and results are possible.