Making Senate amendments more transparent

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On the eve of the midterm elections and with the 111th Congress all but wrapped up with its business, Sunlight has been brainstorming a list of bipartisan, “low-hanging fruit” of transparency ideas that the House and Senate can hit the ground running with as soon as they come back into session next year. One of those proposals is to make all amendments filed in the Senate immediately available to the public online.

The American public has the right to know what their elected officials are debating and voting on in Congress. However, as the current process stands, Senators and their staff are granted privileged access to information about some amendments while the general public is kept locked out.

Amendments are often filed to bills during debate on the Senate floor. While these amendments are available for immediate internal Senate review, the public often must wait until the amendments are published in The Congressional Record the next day to see just what they do to the legislation. In a lot of cases, the Senate may have already voted on one of these amendments the day before — in a way, sidestepping public scrutiny. Whether the change is an addition of a single word or a sweeping manager’s amendment that rewrites large sections of a bill, this presents a missed opportunity for constituents to review the amendment language and contact their representatives with any concerns.

Conversely, the Senate may also end up voting on an amendment that was filed and printed days earlier in The Congressional Record, which makes the language of the amendment difficult to find.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) introduced a resolution to address this very issue in June of this year without much fanfare or attention from the press. But quiet as its introduction was, the resolution’s impact is significant in that it would bring the Senate in line with policies already long in place in the House.

Senator Grassley’s resolution mirrors larger reform efforts to ensure underlying legislation is made available to Congress and the public for a reasonable amount of time before it is voted on. It stands to reason that the amendment process should be made as transparent as possible as well. And, like the 72 hour rule that Sunlight has continually pushed for, the Senate could act proactively on revising its amendment process by enshrining this change in any new rules package it adopts for the 112th Congress. Whether as a stand-alone bill or incorporated as a rule, Senator Grassley’s proposal is an easy step in the direction of a more transparent and accountable Senate.

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