Capitol Hill Bureau Chief
After hearing chants of "Read the bill!" at town hall meetings across America, members of both parties, on both sides of Capitol Hill, pushed efforts Wednesday to make legislation available to the public before Congress votes on it.
On the House side, four Congressmen -- two Democrats and two Republicans -- circulated a letter urging their colleagues to support a floor vote to make bills available online 72 hours before a vote. Although the congressmen introduced a bill on the matter in June, it has never been scheduled for a vote by the House Democratic leadership.
"Americans made it emphatically clear that they expect their representatives in Congress to read and understand the legislation they are voting on," the congressmen wrote. "The public is fed up with the status quo. And many of our colleagues are too."
On the Senate side, Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) forced a vote in the Senate Finance Committee to make the legislative language of the health care reform bill available online 72 hours before the committee votes on it, complete with an up-to-date assessment by the Congressional Budget Office on the bill's cost.
In pitching his idea, Bunning explained that members usually vote on "conceptual" language of bills at the committee level, and only write legislative language once a bill gets to the full Senate. "This probably sounds a little crazy to most people, that we would be voting on something when we haven't actually seen legislative language," he said. "Well they would be right; it is a little crazy."
Bunning called the town hall meetings this summer "eye openers," and said, "Quite frankly, I think Americans are tired us us taking the easy way out, tired of us not reading or having the time to read the bills. They expect more from us and we should deliver it."
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) added, "This is not complicated, this is pretty simple. What are you voting on?"
The timing and schedule of votes has long been controversial on Capitol Hill. Under Republican leadership in 2003, a 15-minute vote was once held open for more than three hours -- from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. -- to allow leaders to convince members to vote for the measure. That led then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to call for a limit to the length of votes, as well as at least 24 hours for members to review the content of bills before voting on them.
When Democrats took over in 2007, however, short-notice votes again became the norm. Earlier this year, members of the House and Senate had less than 24 hours to read either the full $787 billion stimulus bill or the energy bill before voting on them.
In the hour leading up to the vote on the energy bill in June, House Minority Leader John Boehner mounted a mini-filibuster to protest the hastily scheduled vote and read aloud from a 300-page amendment to the bill that had been filed at 3 o'clock that morning. On Wednesday he said, "The American people are angry that Speaker Pelosi didn't allow the public and their elected representatives to read the trillion-dollar 'stimulus' bill or the national energy tax before they were rammed through the House. They have every right to be angry. Look at the results."
Bunning's proposal was defeated by the Senate Finance Committee after Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said the amendment could delay voting on health care reform by as much as three weeks, "and I don't think that's acceptable," Baucus said.
Baucus also described what he felt was the "almost excessive" transparency he said he has brought to the health care reform process, including making more than 500 amendments available on the Finance Committee's website
over the weekend before debating them this week.