H.Res.688 — Arguments against (and ReadtheBill.org’s counter-arguments)

No public official or pundit has publicly argued against Res.688, to the best of our knowledge. Please contact us if you know of any explicit, public statement against H.Res.688 by a public official, non-profit organization or media pundit so we can post it here and provide counter-arguments.

Following are some arguments made quietly, or some observations that are observations rather than arguments:

Citizens cannot understand the legalese in these bills

This is correct. Most citizens (except the most motivated) lack the time, tools and experience to read a complicated piece of legislation and really understand it. Even an experienced congressional staff person who knows the defense bill might be unable to fully understand a bill on Social Security or irrigation policy.

The good news is that there are many experts who can and will read the legislation, and thousands of other Americans who can at least look out for questionable provisions and bring them to the experts’ attention. They will sound the alarm if they find bad provisions.

Journalists, bloggers, state and local officials, retired congressional staff, public interest advocates, and interested business people will let everyone else know what they find. Note that the natural rivalries of lobbyists can be very helpful. Bank lobbyists would often watchdog legislation to benefit credit unions, and vice versa. Lobbyists for rival military contractors would often sound the alarm if their competitor sneaks a provision into the defense bill.

They will speak up if Congress is poised to act recklessly. Using the Internet to harness their collective labor and intelligence is the way to keep the politicians of all stripes honest.

By the way, there is no one group of experts that everyone trusts. Rather, everyone is free to look to whatever independent expert they respect. Citizens can listen to the expert of their choice and then decide what to think. Of course, interested and motivated citizens may end up reading a few key sentences that are excerpted from a bill and explained by someone they trust.

You don’t need 72 hours. Just 24 or 48 hours is enough

72 hours is consistent with the existing (but routinely waived) three-day rule in the House, and related rules in the Senate. 72 is long enough to analyze a piece of legislation and alert those who are interested, but short enough to be readily enforced.

24 hours may be enough time to FIND a bad provision in a bill, but it is not enough time to FIX. it. Because the bills will be read by experts, who will sound the alarm to citizens and the media, it is crucial to have 72 hours to allow that process to play out. 72 hours allows time for citizens to contact their members of Congress.

Moreover, anything less than 72 hours would weaken existing House rules and is not reform, but rather a surrender to business as usual. The three-day rule should not be weakened to become the 24-hour rule or 48-hour rule.

Just because a bad provision is posted on the Internet does not mean it will be taken out of the bill. Even today, lots of dumb provisions and bills pass that have been available for more than 72 hours.

Even if this reform would not prevent passage of every bad section and bill, it would still make a huge difference. The political disadvantages of pushing through bad provisions under public glare could cost one political party its majority in the next election, or a member his or her seat.

The 72 Online rule would shine more light on Congress, as did C-SPAN when it began. While Congress does many dumb things on C-SPAN, that does not mean one should pull the plug on C-SPAN, does it?

Most legislation is already posted online
Some legislation is currently posted. Taxpayers have certainly paid for the computers and staff to do it. What is missing is political will. Unfortunately, the more important and controversial the legislation, the less likely it is to be posted in advance online. Some bills are not posted online for days even AFTER they pass the House. Even bills currently posted online may be posted for less than 72 hours, too little time to scrutinize them and raise public awareness.

Congress should read the legislation. It’s their job.

Unfortunately, we tried that, and it didn’t work. Too often, and with the most important legislation, Congress absolutely refuses to read the legislation before it considers and votes on it. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune has editorialized that “first-day kindergarten students have a better idea of what’s going on around them than did members of Congress” as they considered massive budget legislation in December 2005. Moreover, in a free and democratic country, it’s also the job of journalists, state and local officials, business leaders, and interested citizens to know what Congress is considering and offer opinions on the proposed bills. The best way to teach someone to read is by example. If Congress sees experts and citizens reading the legislation, Congress may begin to read it, too.

In the House, the real answer is just to enforce the existing three-day rule.

No. The House has on its books a three-day rule requiring reported bills to be available for three days before being brought up on the House floor. But the House Rules Committee routinely issues procedural rules waiving this and all other points of order, and the House routinely approves those waivers. Enforcing the three-day rule is a lost cause, crippled by in partisan politics and pork-barrel favors. It’s time for a fundamentally different approach using the new information technologies that have transformed other parts of our society and put information in the hands of the citizens and experts they trust.

Lobbying reform would fix this.

No. Lobbying reform is needed. But the 72 Online rule would complement lobbying reform by making it harder for black hat lobbyists to get their pals in Congress to slip costly provisions into big bills in the dead of night. Anyone who wants to separate the black hat lobbyists from the white hat lobbyists should ask whether they support the 72 Online rule. (ReadtheBill.org does not work on lobbying reform because it is beyond our budget and mission.)

Forget procedural reforms. We just need to elect a Democratic majority in Congress.

This is wrong on both policy and politics. First, ANY majority of whatever party is tempted to bend and weaken the rules for its convenience. Democrats were not immune that that temptation when they had power through 1994, and would not be in the future. Second, politically, this reform is inevitable. The only question is who will get the credit for passing it. A Democratic majority would likely find a Republican minority to be an enthusiastic champion for the 72 Online reform. Politically, it would be smarter for the current minority party (Democrats) to see the 72 Online reform as the path to power, not the price of it.