Now it’s getting down to the wire and debate over the health care bill not only extends to what’s in the final package but how public the final negotiations are going to be. There’s even a public fight about legislative procedure – whether the bills will go to a formal conference committee, whether C-SPAN will be able to broadcast those hearings so the public can see the sausage being made.
But much of this discussion about transparency is partisan driven so it makes me grit my teeth (which my dentist tells me I really shouldn’t do). More importantly it misses the mark. There is much Congress can do to improve transparency in its lawmaking, such as providing better access to legislative data, to committee and floor video, to voting records, ethics filings, and earmark requests, and we and others have called for these and many other changes. A conference committee is hardly the be all and end all of Congressional transparency.
But that is not the end of the matter: we should never allow Congress to pass legislation which has not seen the light of day. After the House and Senate have ironed out the details of this health care legislation – or any bill — a final opportunity for real transparency can be had by posting the full bill online for 72 hours prior to the final debate and vote. (And if major amendments are added during the 72 hours that the bill is available to the public, then those amendments should be made public on the Web for another 72 hours, too.)
Think of posting something on line for 3 days as a ‘safety valve’ – a final chance for citizens, media, lawmakers and lobbyists alike to look at the whole package giving everyone one last opportunity to raise questions and concerns about the bill. If readers are in an advocacy mode they have time to mobilize others in support or opposition, and/or take action in whatever form they see fit.
There is no measure more important to debate in the open than health care, and this is a moment when we all need to be champions for public, online disclosure and engage with our government. With 72 hours, the buck can actually stop with citizens the way our Founders intended. We know that Congress do it because congressional leadership has already done so at other critical points in this debate.
This is what real transparency would look like.