In April of this year, I had a conversation with an old friend in Tennessee trying to describe the mission of the Sunlight Foundation and what I do here.
I told him we’re using “cutting-edge technology and ideas in policy and organizing to make government transparent and accountable to the public.” When he asked for an example of a “cutting-edge idea,” I laughed and said, “you know, one of the first things we’re going to be tackling this summer is an idea that really should never be considered ‘cutting-edge’ at all.”
I continued “We want legislation to be online and available to anyone for at least 72 hours before its debated by Congress, so that the public and Congressmen alike have time to actually read the bill and weigh in on it before they make decisions about it.” He was baffled. He couldn’t believe that members of Congress might not actually read the legislation they voted on, or that Congress didn’t already provide that minimal amount of time for the public to weigh in . It seemed so simple and fundamental to the democratic process, that he couldn’t wrap his mind around it.
The lack of a 72-hour rule, as we call it, has been a big problem in Washington for years, and it loomed especially large in April as we headed into one of the most intense legislative periods in a generation. At the time, it was also a problem almost no one was talking about.
An awful lot has happened between then and now, and from where we sit, one of the most important developments on Capitol Hill and among the public has been that Congress can no longer talk about a piece of major legislation without a reporter asking, “will the final version of the bill be online for 72 hours?”
Fueled by a simple petition that 25,000 of you across the country have signed, great media coverage, political support, and the demands of constituents on the phones and in town halls nationwide, the conversation about the availability of legislation online has changed dramatically. In fact, it’s changed entirely.
When it comes to the single biggest piece of legislation we’ve seen in years in the health care bill, everything that we’ve asked for in terms of reading the bill has happened so far. The various House and Senate health care bills, and even their amendments (so far), have been online for 72 hours before being debated and subsequently voted on.
Perhaps more importantly, the accountability process has continuously swung into action immediately upon the legislation being posted. Journalists, bloggers and our team at Open Congress pounced on each iteration almost immediately. My Twitter feed lit up with posts about bill language from Amanda Carpenter and David Corn, and legislators used the links to get information to the public. At least one Senator even tweeted about reading it while out of session!
That means we’ve actually achieved more than we bargained for – at least for now – and we’ve done it faster than we thought Congress could possibly move. What’s more; we’ve accomplished all that we have without the legislation we thought would be necessary having been passed.
This is no small feat, and shows that we do not need to wait for Congress to pass laws requiring change in order to get our representatives to act in the ways we want. It’s an achievement that shows definitively that public demand for public information to be ONLINE and in REAL-TIME will result in change when we are clear and decisive …and loud.
Bravo, Team Read the Bill! For all the things that may frustrate us about government, they do sometimes get some things right when they know we want it and we hold them accountable for it. It will continue to be extremely important that we keep the pressure on in the months ahead.
We hope you’ll continue on with us.