As Congress lurches closer to a decision on an enormous overhaul of the American health care system, pressure is mounting on legislative leaders to make the final bill available online for citizens to read before a vote.
Lawmakers were given just hours to examine the $789 billion stimulus plan, sweeping climate-change legislation and a $700 billion bailout package before final votes.
While most Americans normally ignore parliamentary detail, with health care looming, voters are suddenly paying attention. The Senate is expected to vote on a health bill in the weeks to come, representing months of work and stretching to hundreds of pages. And as of now, there is no assurance that members of the public, or even the senators themselves, will be given the chance to read the legislation before a vote.
"The American people are now suspicious of not only the lawmakers, but the process they hide behind to do their work," said Michael Franc, president of government relations for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
At town hall meetings across the country this past summer, the main topic was health care, but there was a strong undercurrent of anger over the way Congress rushed through passage of the stimulus, global warming and bank bailout bills without seeming to understand the consequences. The stimulus bill, for example, was 1,100 pages long and made available to Congress and the public just 13 hours before lawmakers voted on it. The bill has failed to provide the promised help to the job market, and there was outrage when it was discovered that the legislation included an amendment allowing American International Group, a bailout recipient, to give out millions in employee bonuses.
"If someone had a chance to look at the bill, they would have found that out," said Lisa Rosenberg, who lobbies Congress on behalf of the Sunlight Foundation to bring more transparency to government.
The foundation has begun an effort to get Congress to post bills online, for all to see, 72 hours before lawmakers vote on them.
"It would give the public a chance to really digest and understand what is in the bill," Rosenberg said, "and communicate whether that is a good or a bad thing while there is still time to fix it."
What you don't know can hurt you:
» House energy and global warming bill, passed June 26, 2009. 1,200 pages. Available online 15 hours before vote.
» $789 billion stimulus bill, passed Feb. 14, 2009. 1,100 pages. Available online 13 hours before debate.
» $700 billion financial sector rescue package, passed Oct. 3, 2008. 169 pages. Available online 29 hours before vote.
» USA Patriot domestic surveillance bill, passed Oct. 23, 2001. Unavailable to the public before debate.
A similar effort is under way in Congress. Reps. Brian Baird, D-Wash., and Greg Walden, R-Ore., are circulating a petition among House lawmakers that would force a vote on the 72-hour rule.
Nearly every Republican has signed on, but the Democratic leadership is unwilling to cede control over when bills are brought to the floor for votes and are discouraging their rank and file from signing the petition. Senate Democrats voted down a similar measure last week for the health care bill.
The reluctance to implement a three-day rule is not unique to the Democrats.
The Republican majority rushed through the controversial Patriot Act in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as well as a massive Medicare prescription drug bill in 2003 that added hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit.
For the majority party, legislative timing plays a big role in whether a bill will pass because support can be fleeting.
"The leaders use it as a tool to get votes or to keep amendments off a bill," said one top Senate Democratic aide.
But Baird warned of public backlash.
"Democrats know politically it's difficult to defend not doing this," he said. "The public gets this. They say we entrust you with the profound responsibility of making decisions that affect our lives, and we expect you to exercise due diligence in carrying out that responsibility."