Opinion

Commentary: Imagine reading a bill before passing it

In 1776, the rallying cry was, "No taxation without representation."

Today, it could be, "No taxation without totally clueless representation."

That's what Americans got on June 26, when the House voted 219-212 for the "cap-and-tax" energy bill, as the Republicans refer to it. The bill ran more than 1,000 pages, and before members had time to digest that tome, 300 pages of amendments were added after midnight. When Minority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, started to read the additions, bill co-sponsor Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., objected. He was rebuffed. There are no time limits for comments by House leaders.

"When you file a 300-page amendment at 3:09 a.m., the American people have a right to know what's in this bill," Boehner said.

Whether this bill will lessen greenhouse-gas emissions — as Democrats hope — or kill countless jobs — as Republicans predict — or ever pass the Senate, remains to be seen. But the House vote did raise a question that cuts across party and ideology:

How can lawmakers vote on something so important without a thorough understanding of what's in it?

Not the everyday "We hereby rename this post office in honor of so-and-so" or "We officially declare this Goldfish Month." The big things, like an almost $800 billion stimulus plan, or an energy package that Politico said "would transform the country's economy and industrial landscape."

Actually reading such legislation, as the founders might say, should be self-evident.

But apparently not. So a little nudge is in order, especially with health-care reform looming.

One nudger is Colin Hanna, a former Chester County, Pa., commissioner and president of the conservative advocacy group Let Freedom Ring. He has begun a campaign (www.pledgetoread.org) that asks members of the House and Senate to promise the following:

"I ... pledge to my constituents and to the American people that I will not vote to enact any health-care reform package that:

"1) I have not read, personally, in its entirety; and,

"2) Has not been available, in its entirety, to the American people on the Internet for at least 72 hours, so that they can read it too."

Let Freedom Ring isn't alone. A consortium of liberal and good-government groups is backing readthebill.org, and a libertarian group, DownsizeDC.org, essentially wants the two planks of Hanna's pledge enacted as federal law.

Having been a commissioner, Hanna understands that lawmakers can't read every line of every bill, but he argues that in some cases it's necessary.

"There are certain issues of scope and importance that demand an extra measure of due diligence, including reading the bill in full," he said in an interview. Health care, cap-and-trade, and the stimulus all rise to that level, he says, adding that legislators dismiss this sentiment at their peril.

"There is a rising public demand that bills be read," he says. "And there is a rising public outrage against politicians who dismissively suggest that's just the way Washington works."

He is referring to a Politico story about the initial response by House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., when asked about a pledge: laughter. But then Hoyer backpedaled, saying that of course members, staff, or review boards read bills, or at least "substantial portions."

Hoyer's reaction shows that the priority is not to make informed judgments and improve legislation, Hanna suggests, but to rush through bad laws before anyone can object.

"They want to completely control the entire legislative process and ram it down not only Congress' throat but the American people's throat, and we think that's wrong," Hanna says.

If Congress hasn't the time or inclination to read the bills, let the public do it. And that's where Part 2 of the pledge comes in — allowing 72 hours for citizens to read legislation online before a vote.

"We have the technology to make complex legislation available for public and media inspection," Hanna says. "We're not being true to the ideals of democracy if we don't take advantage of that technology."

He has a point. Granted, a "read the bill" movement can come off as gimmicky, but given recent votes and the magnitude of the bills, how does one argue against citizen access to legislation? Candidate Obama had promised to post bills online before he signed them into law. He's broken the promise, so let Congress set an even higher standard.

On his Web site, Hanna has been tallying the number of pledge supporters. He plans to reveal the names of those backers — as well as those who rejected or ignored the offer to sign the pledge.

At which time voters will be a little better informed, even if their senators and representatives refuse to be.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Kevin Ferris is assistant editor of the Editorial Page of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to him at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at kf@phillynews.com.

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