By Molly K. Hooper - 10/02/09 10:11 AM EDT
House Democratic leaders this year have repeatedly waived transparency rules aimed at providing members with enough time to read bills before they vote on them.
On at least two dozen occasions in 2009, the transparency rules have been shelved — including on votes on wage discrimination, climate change and children’s health insurance, according to statistics culled by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit group.
Since 1971, House rules contained a similar measure, but with a loophole: The read-the-bill rule could be waived by a majority of members.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has committed to allowing lawmakers to scrutinize the healthcare reform bill 72 hours before it is voted on, but other members say this policy should apply to all legislation, without exception.
Leaders of the majority party in the House frown upon their members signing discharge petitions.
Rep. Brian Baird (Wash.), one of the half-dozen Democrats who has put his name on the discharge petition, said vulnerable Democrats will take a hit politically back home if they don’t sign it.
Baird said, “This is a common-sense, oughta-be-done, good-of-the-country position. If you are not on that position, the question is, why not? And the answer is you are somehow being pressured not to get on it or you have to defend it [with] some arcane, workings-of-the-House, discretion-of-the-majority-leader [argument] — that’s a tough sell when at the end of the day you’re voting for something you haven’t read.”
Democratic leaders are leaning on members not to sign the petition, Baird said, but momentum is building for the measure. Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.) signed it on Thursday.
Should the discharge petition attract 218 votes, the 72-hour bill would hit the House floor. At press time, it had 182 signatories, including all House
Republicans except Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), who has a policy against signing them. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) sponsored the discharge petition seeking a vote on the read-the-bill rule, which was introduced by Baird.
There are 35 Democrats who have backed Baird’s bill and not signed Walden’s petition, including Reps. Chris Carney (Pa.), Larry Kissell (N.C.), Eric Massa (N.Y.), Mike Ross (Ark.) and Charlie Melancon (La.).
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), the second-ranking Democrat in the House, calls the concept “sound” but opposes Baird’s resolution because it’s not feasible.
“What if only one short word or amendment is made? It’s one thing initially for a bill to have a long time, but if you come out of a conference and they don’t change anything then, you don’t need 72 hours. Sometimes you are at the end of the session and you don’t have 72 hours,” Hoyer told The Hill in an interview last week.
Baird disagrees. He says that all the “shenanigans” happen in end-of-the-year catchall omnibus spending bills. Baird believes no bill should be exempt from the rule. His measure would require a supermajority (two-thirds) to waive the 72-hour requirement.
A coordinated campaign spearheaded by the Sunlight Foundation, Baird and GOP leaders has kept the pressure on rank-and-file Democrats to challenge their leaders, including President Barack Obama, who promised to give the public five days to read bills before signing them into law.
The White House has broken this campaign promise on at least a couple of bills.
A new Rasmussen poll of 1,000 voters found that 83 percent of the public wants Congress to post legislation online two weeks before voting on it.
When Republicans ran the House, they passed a read-the-bill rule, but it also had holes in it.
“Absolutely — it is among the most commonly waived rules the House has,” Dreier said.
The Sunlight Foundation’s Lisa Rosenberg said that, like the Republican majority before them, Democrats have not kept their promise: “The current rule requires that members be able to see legislation for 72 hours before there’s a vote, but from our perspective that isn’t good enough.”
Mary Ann Dreas contributed to this article.