Important “Read the Bill” Questions

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How do you reward good work? …with more work.

Through the Read the Bill campaign success thus far, it’s clear that there are more questions for us to answer when it comes to getting government information, like major legislation, online for the public – and doing it in as close to real-time as possible. We’ll need your help in getting where we want to be.

The fact that we’re having this conversation at all, and that the conversation is having an impact on Capitol Hill, is a remarkable accomplishment. It’s important to recognize just how hard getting here has been for many folks, and though, it’s equally important for us to address what lies ahead.

The Read the Bill campaign has been a bit like climbing a mountain. It sometimes happens when climbing that you get to the top of what you may have thought was a peak, and subsequently realize that what looked like a “peak” from the depths below, was actually only a ridge top, and there is yet higher to climb.

It’s similar to the way my colleague Clay described Recovery.gov as a success because it has changed the fundamental way government is thinking, despite there being a lot of very important, practical issues yet to grapple with.

In my previous post I mentioned that the conversation about the 72-hour rule has “changed entirely.” What I mean by that, more specifically, is that Congress isn’t even talking about whether a bill should be online for 72 hours before it’s debated anymore. That much is more or less assumed.

Rather, the conversation has turned to amendments to a bill and how long THOSE should be placed online – as well as legislative maneuvers like rule changes and what needs to happen with those.

With regard to the health care bills, after most amendments had (thankfully) been online for 72 hours before the House health care debate, there was frustration both about the rule change process and about the late-addition Stupak Amendment. The stir about those issues was fundamentally about the time available for legislators to make decisions on either before their vote – whether partisan politics was involved in intent or not. This week, there is debate about how long amendments should be online in the Senate before debate.

Boiled down, the question has largely become, “when is a bill ‘final’ and how long should the ‘final’ bill be online before debate?”

It’s contentious. It often seems partisan – and partisan on different sides depending on the day. It’s not often pleasant.  But we should be frank and open about both the need to address the questions in front of us, as well as the fact that there are many perspectives as to exactly how the underlying issue (government information being available to the public) should be addressed.

And, let me add again, thank god there are multiple ways to see this and that we are having the conversation.

At the end of the day, what matters most to us at Sunlight is that we can all get access to the government information which can (and does) impact our lives. That information needs to be ONLINE and in REAL-TIME so that we can digest the information and take action on it if necessary. It’s information we’ve exercised one of our most precious rights to allow a group of leaders to create, and information we’re paying for with our tax dollars.

So, now and in the coming months, we’re going to be working with you to ask the right questions and have the necessary conversations to make sure our government data is freed.

(Did I mention that it’s exciting simply to be having the conversations at all? Remember that just a few months ago, it didn’t really seem possible that we would be.)

For some, entering the conversation may seem to require extraordinary understanding of the legislative process just to comprehend what’s happening in the first place. But it doesn’t have to. At the end of the day, if Congress isn’t serving YOU – no matter what your knowledge of them or how they work is – then you should be able to make that known. Otherwise, what’s the point of representation, right?

So we are genuinely curious in what you think – no matter who you are. You operatives and wonks that have thought about these issues a lot, we want to hear it all. Many of you are already active in our Open House Project, and we hope you’ll keep chiming in.

Those that haven’t paid much attention to politics ever in their lives until recently, we want to hear your perspective too. I think it’s safe to say many of you don’t trust that you can have any real impact, so why bother. Just as likely is that you simply don’t trust government much at all. We understand that. Underlying everything we do is a belief that a more transparent, open government is one that is also one worthy of our trust – so please don’t be shy. We need to hear from you most of all.

Some of the things you can help us with right away are letting us know:

– How long would you need or want to see a bill and ask questions about it before your representative votes on it?

– Where should a bill be placed for you to consider it easily accessible to you?

Thank you so much. You’ll be hearing more from us – mostly because (as geeky as it sounds), we’re very excited about making this level of transparency come to life with you.

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  • Jake Brewer

    Thank you very much for your questions/thoughts, Terry.

    Two questions you raise are indeed at the heart of the matter: “who takes advantage of 72 hours?” and “how do people comprehend a bill even with 72 hours?”

    Important to address, and lord knows we don’t have all the answers. But that’s what this conversation is about, right?

    While we’d like it to be as many people as possible taking advantage of the time a bill is available to them, we know that’s simply not what’s going to happen. What can happen though, is bloggers, journalists and others can serve as translators and get important parts of a bill to the public in time for them to raise questions about it with their legislators.

    72 hours is also enough for citizens to ask questions that their representatives should be compelled to answer for them if they don’t understand something.

    Much can be done in 72 hours before a bill is final with both the bill and amendments being available, but we have to take advantage of it with meaningful public engagement. As you said.

    Would love to hear your extended thoughts! email is jbrewer[at]sunlightfoundation.com

  • The most important question is: who takes advantage of the 72 hour rule?

    Another related question is how can/should a private citizen use this to get involved? Many of the bills are very lengthy, written in arcane language, and riddled with incomprehensible cross-references. Unless you understand the background very well, it’s usually hard to figure out if a particular (innocent-looking) wording is really an important gotcha.

    Finally, by the time a bill is in final form, hasn’t most of the opportunity for changing it already gone by?

    I don’t mean – in any way – that this kind of publicizing is not good. Indeed, it’s essential – but I wonder if (by itself) it is enough to really achieve what we all want, which is more public engagement.

    PS: you’ve got my e-mail and if you are interested, I can elaborate a bit more on this, along with a few specific suggestions.

  • Can someone find me the bill Congress passed to protect Pharmacuticals against lawsuits ? I am focus on a bill prior to the ‘swine flu shot demand” which is now killing people especially children around the globe. Baxter is the biggest in the corruption. See Jane Bergermieser and http://www.flucase.com then http://www.drcarley.com and then Dr. Viera Scheibner.

    Thanks
    Elizabeth