Lincoln * Institute

Colin A. Hanna

Colin A. Hanna

Let Freedom Ring, USA


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Let Freedom Ring

Finally: A Simple Issue in the Midst of Complexity

by Colin Hanna

There are a lot of complex issues in public policy that are on the front burners right now: health care, energy regulation, economic policy, the global threat of Jihadism are four obvious examples. Today, however, I want to address an issue that is not complex. It is simple. It's whether our legislators and the public should have the opportunity to read proposed legislation before votes are taken on it. On its face, the answer is obvious: of course they should. On what basis, other than an occasional serious emergency, could anyone justify supporting a process that denies lawmakers the opportunity to comprehend the laws that they make? And because lawmakers are ultimately answerable to the public at the polls, doesn't the public have the right to read, mark and learn those laws while they're still in the development stage? Perhaps the clearest lesson from the tea partiers, town halls and 912 demonstrations over the last nine months is that the public has a right to expect due diligence from its lawmakers — and that part of that due diligence is ensuring that the process is transparent and open to public inspection.

Just this year, the stimulus bill in both House and Senate and the so-called cap and trade bill in the House were voted on by legislators who had not had time to read them. They relied almost totally on their staffs and their party leadership teams to fairly represent the bills' contents and consequences, and the later revelations of the undisclosed and undebated AIG bonuses are but one example of the perils of such reliance. That makes a mockery of participatory democracy, and once the public became aroused about these outrages, it began to demand improvement in the process by which our republic functions. Cries of "Read the Bill" were heard by every legislator who had the courage to face constituents.

Now a proposal has emerged that promises at least a step in the right direction. It's a change in the rules in the House of Representatives that would affect how that body debates and votes on all legislation. A similar rules change is under consideration in the Senate. It would simply provide that no legislation could be voted on that had not been posted on the Internet for 72 hours. That would allot the public, and its armies of activists, bloggers and media, as well as legislators, enough time to give bills at least cursory review. Egregious provisions, shameless earmarks, and simple mistakes could come to light and be subject to debate and correction. Many states and counties require far longer posting and review periods, sometimes as much as 90 days. Surely three days will not cause the wheels of the sausage machine to grind to a dysfunctional halt.

In the House, the Resolution that proposes this modest process reform is House Resolution 554. It was proposed by Congressman Brian Baird of Washington, a Democrat. It has garnered a bi-partisan total of 176 co-sponsors, 40 Democrats and 136 Republicans. One reason that it has more support from the minority party than form the majority is that it somewhat restricts the majority party's ability to ram legislation through the House. One can easily deduce that if Republicans were in the majority, a process reform resolution like this would probably find more support among Democrats. It is not really an ideological issue.

But the Speaker of the House and the Chairman of the House Rules Committee are bottling up this Resolution so that it never comes to the floor of the House for a vote. Fortunately, there is a way around such a block by House leadership. It's called a Discharge Petition. If 218 House members, a majority of the 435 members of the House, sign a Discharge Petition on any bill, it is immediately discharged from the blocking committee and brought straight to the House floor where and it can be debated an voted upon. House Resolution 554 is a perfect candidate for a Discharge Resolution, and one has been started. At this point, it has 182 signers, and need 36 more. Let Freedom Ring has taken up the cause of this Discharge Petition with a new website that promotes the public's right to see legislation on the Internet for 72 hours before the House can vote on it. Our website is simply entitled " ." If you go to it you will see who has signed the Discharge Petition, who has not, and how to contact them. I urge every reader of this column to go to this site as soon as you can to see where your Member of Congress stands. If your Member of Congress is not yet on the Discharge Petition, call immediately and don't let up until he or she gets on board.

Colin Hanna is President of Let Freedom Ring, USA and a commentator on American Radio Journal.