Last Saturday both the House and Senate voted to give the Appropriations Committee chairmen and their staff unrestricted access to the income tax returns of ordinary Americans.
This extraordinary opportunity for privacy invasion does not have the majority support of either chamber, and the embarrassed Republican leadership quickly vowed to remove it.
But how did this dangerous provision pass Congress in the first place? The answer is simple: Members didn't have enough time to read the bill.
Current rules require that bills be available to be read for at least three days before coming to a vote. Unfortunately, those rules are routinely overridden by the Republican majority, leaving only a few hours to read bills that are thousands of pages in length and spend hundreds of billions of the people's dollars.
There is now an inverse relationship between the importance of legislation and the amount of time members have to study it before voting.
In addition to this latest abuse of power, prominent examples from the 108th Congress include the Medicare prescription drug bill, the energy bill, the intelligence bill and the defense authorization bill. These important pieces of legislation total more than 2,900 pages of text and authorize more than $1 trillion of spending. Yet, collectively they were available to members for less than 48 hours total for reading.
If forced to tell the truth, most members of Congress would acknowledge that they did not fully or, in many cases, even partially read these bills before casting their votes.
It is true that summaries of the legislation were available and that many of the bills had been discussed for some time before the final drafts were brought to the floor. But the devil is often in the details, and without access to the full text members cannot know those details.
To prevent such abuses, House rules for the 109th Congress should insist that members have a minimum of three days to read legislation before voting and, further, that any waiver of this requirement require a two-thirds vote of the full House. Ideally, major pieces of legislation should be available for much more time so members have the opportunity not only to study the language personally but also to discuss the law with those who would be directly impacted. For example, the Medicare bill should have been discussed with senior groups, doctors, long-term care facilities and pharmacists before, not after, it became law.
The principle of three-day availability for legislation is not new. Indeed, it was championed quite recently by the very people who now so frequently and blithely violate it. The Republican Leadership Task Force on Deliberative Democracy stated the matter succinctly in 1993, "A bill that cannot survive a 3-day scrutiny of its provisions is a bill that should not be enacted. . . . The world's most powerful legislature cannot in good conscience deprive its membership of a brief study of a committee report prior to final action."
Republican Rep. David Dreier of California, who is now chairman of the House Rules Committee, echoed this sentiment at the time, and criticized procedures that, he said, "create a breeding ground for special interest groups to take control over the legislative process." As a remedy, Dreier proposed then what I am calling for now: requirement of a supermajority in Congress to waive points of order if the three-day principle is violated.
I believe this simple, fair and common-sense proposal is the first opportunity and the first test of the majority party, and our re-elected president, to provide the unifying leadership they have promised. How the president and Republican leaders respond will speak volumes about the sincerity of their rhetoric, their pride in the legislation they propose and their attitude toward democracy itself.
The outrageous provision to invade taxpayer privacy will not become law because of swift and strong condemnation by both parties. But, make no mistake, this is a cautionary tale, and we may not be so fortunate next time. The only way to guarantee that Congress knows what it is passing is to ensure that members have time to read and debate the bills on which they are being asked to vote.
The writer is a Democratic representative from Washington state.