Congressman Brian Baird, D-Wash., has re-introduced a bill in Congress that would ensure the public and members of Congress have adequate time to review legislation before it comes up for a vote.
Under the provisions of House Resolution 554, all bills and conference reports would be available on the Internet for 72 hours prior to a floor vote.
Baird has repeatedly pushed for more openness and transparency in Congress for all the right reasons. But his efforts have been rebuffed by both Republicans, when they were in charge, and now by Democrats, who have the majority in Congress.
The public is ill-served by today’s secrecy. Mistakes are made and legislation is not fully vetted before it’s signed into law. Democracy suffers. That’s why it’s imperative that Baird’s legislation be adopted.
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Members of Congress have both a responsibility and a right to review and read legislation before casting a vote. And every member of the public deserves the same right.
But that’s not the practice in Congress – or in the Washington state Legislature, for that matters.
Often bills are rushed to the floor of legislative chambers without the opportunity for lawmakers or members of the public to properly digest and debate the contents.
Baird said the most egregious example he witnessed in the House was an appropriations bill that was literally 3 feet high. Only three copies of that budget bill were printed – one for the Democrats, one for Republicans and one for the chief clerk of the House. In less than 10 hours, that bill, spending billions of tax dollars, was brought to the floor for a vote.
How many of the 435 members of Congress had time to study it?
Clearly, not many, because as Baird remembers that legislation had a little clause inserted into it that would allow any member of the Ways and Means staff to look at any American’s income tax statement for any reason.
When word got out, Baird said, a special session had to be called to overturn that invasion of privacy.
Baird said bills are generally rushed to a vote for two reasons:
One is so that members of the majority party can go home to their congressional districts and trumpet their legislative successes.
The second reason to rush a vote is so the details of the legislation won’t be made public and the opposition won’t have an opportunity to develop its case against the proposal.
“I don’t think either one of those reasons is sound,” Baird said.
The Third District congressman, who represents Olympia and southwest Washington in D.C., said he has been raising a stink on this issue since Republicans were in control and he’s not going to stop now that his party holds the majority. “Our party is a slight bit less bad, but not greatly so,” Baird said. “We’re equally guilty.”
He lists four reasons why bills should be available on the Internet for a full 72 hours before a congressional vote:
• The public notice will modernize the operations of the House by using information technology that has transformed and increased the efficiency of many aspects of American society.
• It will slow the explosive growth of the $11 trillion national debt.
• It will enhance public participation in American democracy and improve the quality of proposed legislation by allowing the opportunity for its review.
• It will help restore public trust in government and enhance respect for Congress by ensuring that its “operations are conducted with the openness, order, and dignity befitting the world’s oldest democracy.”
When asked about the chances of passing his 72-hour notification bill, Baird laughed. He said, “I have the entire Republican party with me on this.”
Baird said his intent this year is to get many more Democratic co-sponsors in an effort to push congressional leaders to bring H.R. 554 to a vote.
“This is one of those bills that if it was brought to the floor, it would pass with broad bipartisan support. Who would vote against it?” Baird asks.
Getting the bill to the floor will be the challenge. If Congress is at all interested in restoring public trust and confidence in its operations, the members will pass Congressman Baird’s 72-hour rule.