I mentioned a couple days ago how important reader emails are to this site. At the same time, though, in the hundreds or often thousands of emails that come in every week there are many suggestions which can’t but seem naive or unrealistic to a jaded Washington eye. Sometimes they’re infected with blog triumphalism, an unrestrained belief that blogs or similarly-situated sites can and should revolutionize all politics and media (an attitude with which I have little patience.)
Last week, when news of the Istook Amendment first surfaced, I received several emails that seemed clearly to fall into this category. Since the tax-snooping language was only spotted by a rushed staffer in the few hours Senators and their staffs had to read over the bill, a number of TPM readers suggested that blogs and their readers be harnessed to comb through future bills to uncover whatever foolish, nefarious or simply unconscionable provisions might be lurking inside them.
At first, as I said, though the intention seemed admirable, I wasn’t particularly impressed by this idea. But over a few days, as I considered it further, it occurred to me that maybe I was the one who wasn’t being realistic or rather was too stuck in conventional ways of thinking.
Allow me to explain.
Democrats are already pushing for a return to the observance of the rule which mandated that members of congress must be given at least three days to review legislation in its final form before it was called to a vote.
But why stop there? Giving legislators a reasonable opportunity to review a bill before they vote to make it law is the barest of bare minimums, especially now that bills are often coming out of conference in a dramatically new form. But why should only legislators get a chance to look at the bill? Forget the issue of purported centrality of blogs. Why not make bills publicly and readily available (and I emphasize ‘readily’) for three days before they can be brought to a vote?
I can think of a number of reasons why not to. (I can imagine friends on the Hill sending me long lists of them.) But I’m not sure any of them are good reasons. Yes, it would expose the unseemly work of legislative horse-trading without which successful coalition and law-making may not be possible. A more valid concern is that the ‘public’ process would be heavily weighted toward single-interest advocacy groups — pro-choice and pro-life, gun control vs. pro-gun, etc. — since those are the only ones organized and resourceful enough to act.
But again, are any of those reasons good ones balanced against the public’s right to know in advance what their elected representatives are voting on? And, remember, this isn’t some abstract issue of transparency. Keeping the contents of legislation not only secret from the public but from legislators themselves kills accountability and makes it far too easy for private interests to feed off the public interest.
Lurking in the background here are two related issues we’ll be returning to: whether the Democratic party can embrace a true, rather than a cosmetic, agenda of reform and whether Democrats, after ten years out of power in Congress and four years in exile from the White House, can start acting like a true opposition party.