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Read the Bill: reading a billion dollars a minute

Some of the news coverage around the $787 billion stimulus bill has noted that legislators had only had 13 hours to read the final bill and conference report. Setting aside that most of those 13 hours were overnight, there are only 780 minutes in 13 hours, so legislators and their staff literally had one minute to read the final bill for each billion dollars they were about to vote on. Even the most heroic efforts of a legislator and their staff won’t allow them to understand an 1,100 page bill overnight. It’s even scarier that this is normal procedure.

It is usually impossible for lawmakers to read or evaluate legislation in the hours between a bill becoming available and its final consideration; worse, citizens usually have no access to bills under consideration at all. Current rules are supposed to require a waiting period between the time a bill is reported and consideration, but over the past few years both parties have routinely pushed this edict aside. This rule most is often cast aside for very important bills: appropriations bills, the USA PATRIOT Act, the Medicare Modernization Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act amendments, various bailout and stimulus packages. All of these were brought to the floor in less than 72 hours after their unveiling. These bills provided for vast increases in spending, a massive expansion of federal programs and tremendous growth in the authority of the executive branch to monitor, detain and spy on American citizens. And no one had time to fully read and analyze any of these bills.

It seems like common sense that legislators should read the bill before they vote on it. It also seems like common sense that legislators should make these bills available to the public, so that we can read the bill and let our legislators know what we think. Isn’t that the point of representative democracy, that we let our representatives know what we think and they use that to help inform their decisions?

Sunlight Foundation has launched a Read The Bill (#readthebill) campaign, and CDT is one of many endorsers. We’re asking Congress to post bills publicly for 72 hours before a vote is taken, so that everyone – Congress, their staff, and the public – has a chance to read the legislation. We want everyone to have an opportunity to consider and debate bills with full knowledge and consideration of the implications of the legislation with considered feedback from the public. You can sign a petition on the site to show your support, too (and Sunlight will add you to their mailing list for future alerts).