Some reader response to the public access to legislation
Most responses were quite positive. But one reader wrote the following ...
I've only viewed lawmaking from afar, but the idea of opening up bills to public viewing seems problematic. As a journalism student I hear about and, to a degree, internalize the value of transparency in the editorial process, so it seems a logical extension to support the same principle in legislative process. The rub, though, lies in the obvious follow-up questions: what kind of citizen action ensues once we open bills to public view? Will interest groups and constituents begin poring over bills and blogger comments on them, then flood Congresspersons with emails and calls and letters? My guess is yes. Then what effect does this action have on legislators and staff? Will the tide of feedback choke the process, resulting in gridlock? Again, my guess is yes. Given the GOP agenda, it's tempting to call this a good thing, but it just feels wrong to support a new rule because of its obstructive value, especially because it doesn't really jibe with the goal of promoting good government. As a principle, transparency is great, but we need to weigh its likely consequences before giving any measure our support or disapproval.
Another former Hill staffer provided the following historical context ...
I've been away from the Senate for 2 years ( I left after 26 years in senior management positions for three Democratic US Senators), so I'm sure one of your friends might have a more contemporary response to your post. But, here's mine:
What you propose--having the bills available to the public at least 3 days before being voted on--was, at one time, the normal course of business.
The process the way it's suppose to run (and the way it ran when I first came to work in Congress 25+ years ago):
A budget gets adopted in April or so, which gives the appropriations committees their spending target levels.
Once they have their target levels, each appropriations subcommittee puts together its bill. I believe there are 13 different subcommittees and 13 different bills.
Each one of those bills is brought to the floor for consideration. A copy of the committee-passed bill is published in advance for members and the public, along with a committee report, which is a layman's description of the bill.
The normal course of business is to pass 13 separate, free standing appropriations bills.
I believe the problem this past year was the Republicans were unable to agree on a budget. The appropriations committee waited for that budget until they could wait no longer, and then started forward with spending targets they worked on themselves. An election year, coupled with infighting among Republicans on what their spending priorities should be, led them to conclude it would be better to wait until after the election to finish their "business."
Democrats in Congress could pledge to:
Not have multi bill appropriations, like this 3000 page bill;
Or, at a minimum, have any appropriations bill available to the public for at least three days, regardless of whether its a single bill or big package of appropriations bills.
Hope this helps. Let me know if you have questions.
[In a subsequent email, the same emailer added following ...]
One point to make clear--there obviously were similar, multi-subcommittee bills that passed as one large appropriations bill when the Democrats controlled Congress. I don't have access to stats on how many times "we" did it, but we did it, too. I don't remember whether we sprung it on people without the opportunity to review it.
However, the more common situation was one or two, or maybe three of the most controversial bills being put together in one bill at the end, when it became clear that they couldn't pass on their own. If my memory is correct, I think the stats would reveal that to be more often the case.
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