June 5, 2009

June 5, 2009 | Commentary on Economy

Congress, Read it Before Voting

Wouldn't it be nice if Congress actually knew what it was doing? Never mind what your politics are, there is something very wrong with a democracy in which lawmakers routinely vote on huge bills they have not even read. In fact, congressional bills have become so large and complex -- and the time between lawmakers receiving copies and voting on bills often so short -- that it is literally impossible for them to read much of the legislation than affects our daily lives.

The economic stimulus bill passed earlier this year, for instance, was more than 1,000 pages, and members were given just a few hours to read it. None did.

And you would have had to be a speed reader and an expert in obscure legalese to get through the complex 960-page Waxman-Markey "cap and trade" energy bill as it whisked through a key committee recently in the fast lane.

Unfortunately, this is nothing new. For years, the leadership of both parties has rammed through enormous bills without giving members time to figure out what's in them. In 1988, for instance, Congress presented President Reagan with a 3,296-page budget bill and accompanying details that weighed 43 pounds. It passed after just six hours of consideration.

Congressional leaders do not impose impossible timetables to break efficiency records. Rather, the aim is to avoid letting members, or the public, learn too much about key provisions before votes are cast ... in case they get cold feet.

When Republican congressional leaders pushed through the 2003 Medicare drug legislation, for instance, many GOP rank-and-filers had little real understanding that it would add trillions to the long-term deficit. Some who had not studied its provisions even thought it would somehow reduce health spending, and leaders were happy to let them believe it.

High-speed action on mammoth bills also allows members to bury special-interest or controversial provisions within the blizzard of fast-moving paper. For instance, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, inserted languageinto the stimulus bill, at the urging of the White House, to protect executive bonuses at bailed-out American International Group Inc.

Sometimes this breakneck pace leads to embarrassment as well as bad policy. The 1981 tax bill was so hastily produced that it incorporated margin notes with the phone number of a clerk's girlfriend. And in 1988, a bill omitted important spending numbers that had not yet been provided to Congress and the reminder "call Rita for these numbers." That note, along with Rita's phone number, was enacted with the bill and became the law of the land.

Periodically, this flying-blind legislative process generates criticism, and congressional leaders duly promise to allow sufficient time for lawmakers to read and understand bills. That promise rarely lasts long.

But in California, a citizens' organization called Honor in Office has put together a state ballot initiative that just might help end drive-by legislating. Its key provision would require state lawmakers, before voting on any bill, to sign an affidavit stating, "I hereby certify under penalty of perjury that I have read [bill number and title] in its entirety and understand its contents."

No sworn affidavit? The lawmaker's vote is not recorded.

Imagine a law requiring that of members of Congress. The bill would run less than a page long - short enough that lawmakers really could read and vote intelligently on in a few minutes. And it would be hard for President Obama to find a reason not to sign a bill requiring members of Congress to actually read legislation they send him.

It's a blunt instrument, to be sure. But a blunt instrument is needed to end this embarrassing and damaging flaw in our legislative process.

Such a provision would have important and beneficial effects.

For one thing, all members would have the incentive and the opportunity to look for special-interest giveaways or provisions that might be unworkable or harmful. They could no longer plead ignorance if such items got through.

But even more importantly, it would significantly increase the period between unveiling a bill and voting on it. That would improve the quality of legislation passed by Congress.

Today, the House or Senate can mull over an issue for months, only to see a handful of members cobble together brand new legislation and rush it through passage in a few days. A "must-have-read" requirement would correct that imbalance and lead to a more sensible allocation of legislative time. And if lawmakers had to carefully examine the nature and workability of legislation before they enacted it, Americans might have a bit more confidence in the Congress.

Stuart Butler is vice president for domestic policy issues for the Heritage Foundation.

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First appeared in the Washington Times