WASHINGTON — As Congress prepares to consider historic
changes to the nation’s health care system, Democratic leaders are balking at
supporting a change in the rules that would let the public see the bills’ texts
72 hours before a vote.
An unusual coalition of conservatives, watchdog groups and a
handful of Democrats has joined the push by Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., to put
the 72-hour measure into a binding rule for the House of Representatives.
Similar efforts in the Senate haven’t gained much momentum.
House Democratic leaders have pledged transparency before.
In their 2006 campaign book, in the “integrity” section, they vowed
that legislation would be available to the public 24 hours before
“consideration” of final versions.
But on some recent big bills, that hasn’t happened. On Feb.
12, the 1,100-page, $787 billion economic stimulus plan was made public at
10:45 p.m. EST and brought up in the House 13 hours later.
Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi,
D-Calif., said that since Democrats took control of the House in 2007, several
measures had been adopted to make the legislative process more transparent,
such as posting amendments’ texts online before consideration.
Pelosi also said last month that she was
“absolutely” willing to put the health care bill online 72 hours in
advance but that she wouldn’t back legislation forcing her to do so.
“The vast majority of bills that have been considered
by the House have been online for weeks and will continue to follow this
process,” Elshami said. He didn’t respond, however, when asked why Pelosi
won’t back Baird’s bill.
Baird vowed to keep pushing.
“It’s great what she said about health care, but it
hasn’t happened yet,” he said. “The problem is that over the last decade
or so, the more important the legislation, the less time we’ve had to read
Republicans and independent watchdog groups also have
“We think the public has a right and an obligation to
look at these bills, and perhaps say to their congressman or senator, ‘Fix
this,’ ” said Lisa Rosenberg, the government affairs consultant at the
Sunlight Foundation, an independent group that works for openness in
Republicans were hardly champions of such transparency when
they controlled Congress most of the time from 1995 to 2007. The 2,065-page
2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit bill was made available to the public
22 hours before House debate began.
According to a study by Rafael DeGennaro, the president of
Citizen Century Institute, an independent research group based in Branford,
Conn., Republican House leaders acted on eight major budget bills from 1996 to
2004 without giving 72 hours’ notice.
Two developments have spurred the movement to change the
system: the House Democrats’ 2006 platform, and the rise of the Internet, which
gives the public unprecedented access to Congress’ inner workings.
Seventy-two hours is considered adequate time for review
because “a handful of hours is really too short, but we don’t want a rule
that forces one more slowdown,” said Bartlett Cleland, the director of the
Institute for Policy Innovation’s Center for Technology Freedom, an advocacy
group based in Dallas.
The House and Senate are expected to finish writing health
care legislation shortly, perhaps by the end of this week, with floor debate to
follow as soon as next week.
Baird and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., are trying to force
their 72-hour resolution to change House rules to the floor with a
“discharge petition,” an unusual procedure that leaders dislike
because it challenges their control of the process.
Currently, the petition has 182 signatures, almost all
Republicans; 218 are needed to force a House vote.
In the Senate, where the issue rarely has come up,
Republicans tried to get the Finance Committee to adopt the 72-hour rule as it
deliberated over health care measures last month. Part of the problem: The
committee technically wasn’t writing a bill, but drafting “conceptual
Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., urged everyone not to worry.
“It’s all good faith,” he said. “It’s based on comity. We work
together. We trust each other. And that’s worked very, very well.”
The 72-hour effort failed by one vote in the Finance