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Reading the Bill

August 26, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

Sen. Max Baucus [D, MT] probably did more to craft the health care bill than just about anybody else in Congress. Still, he’s catching flack for saying at a townhall meeting last week in Montana that he never actually read the full thing.

Here’s Baucus:

“I don’t think you want me to waste my time to read every page of the health care bill. You know why? It’s statutory language. We hire experts.”

You probably remeber that when the health care bill was moving through the House last summer, “read the bill” was one of the most popular anti-reform slogan. It was on tea-party signs across the country and was echoed repeatdely by Republicans in speeches on the House floor. It hardly sounds like a powerful line for fighting health care reform, but it resonated perfectly with the general conservative message on the Democrat-led Congress for which the health care bill was an ultimate symbol — that it’s corrupt (e.g. the only one’s writing and reading the bills are special-interest lobbysists) and that it’s full of careerists that care more about their political livelihoods than about policymaking.

Two factors really tied the messaging together. First, based on a word-count analysis, the health care bill was the longest piece of legislation that Congress has considered in at least the past ten years. “Read the bill” went hand-in-hand with theatrics designed to tie the bill’s length to a similarly extensive expansion in federal beaurocracy. Secondly, after the 2009 stimulus bill became law in February 2009, we learned that a giant loophole had been inserted by the Obama eonomic team and Banking Committee Chairman Sen. Chris Dodd [D, CT] that allowed for big CEO bonuses to be paid out at bailed-out financial firms despite the fact that the bill was advertised to the public as clamping down on these bonuses. Apparently, no one read that section of the final version closely enough to see that it had had a giant hole blown into it at the last minute.

Baucus says he hires experts to read the bills for him. I think that’s fine. The fact is, bills are written in language that’s a lot more like a programming code than it is prose. If Baucus has a team of experts going through bills and turning their texts into human-digestible documents, he’s probably getting a better grasp of their content than if he took a week off, sat down in his studay and read the whole thing himself, which seems to be the vision of “read the bill” held by the conservative sign-holders and Republican congressmen.

The problems identified by the “read the bill” sentiment can only be solved by bolstering openness and disclosure. Having elected officials reading bills isn’t enough. At PPF, we endorse two sensible reforms for building knowledge, both in and out of Congress, about what’s in bills and how they work.

1) All legislative texts should be posted online with plenty of time to be thoroughly digested by the public and members of Congress before they are voted on. This includes all rules, amendments, motion to commit, committee drafts, etc. Without ample time, it’s just not possible for people to identify things like the Dodd-Geithner bonus loophole. Those things only work when oversight is not possible. The Sunlight Foundation has been leading an effort to have all bills posted online for at least 72 hours before being voted on. Bills like hcr and finreg that are long and complex should probably have longer pre-vote disclosure periods than short and simple bills.

2) Congress should adopt the 8 principles of open government data. All legislative info should be released in primary, non-proprietary and fully machine-processable formats so that it is available immediately to the widest possible audience without any restrictions on how it can be used. DIff generators like the ones here at OpenCongress and at GovTrack can instantly show how one version of a bill changes another version, e.g. they would have revealed the Dodd-Geithner loophole in the final stimulus bill had it been released following the 8 principles. But they can only work if the data is open. To be clear, this applies to more than just legislative texts. Baucus’ team of experts are paid by taxpayers, so the documents they are presumably producing to aid Baucus’ work on the bill should be made publicly avaiable following the 8 principles as well. The same goes for the plain-language committee drafts that Baucus was using in his committee.

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