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Health-Care Bill Fuels Debate on Public Access to Legislation

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By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 2009; 4:30 PM

The debate over health-care reform has given new momentum to an old goal of some good-government groups: greater public access to legislation that Congress is considering.

Much of that new energy is being fueled by conservative foes of health care who see political opportunity in their efforts.

Along the way they've discovered what lawmakers already knew: The text in the House of Representative's 1,017-page version of the bill, for example, is a mixture of such thick legalese and references to previous bills that even a chamber full of lawyers requires weeks, not to mention the help of their aides, to digest it.

"Nobody could read this bill in 72 hours and understand it," said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), referring to the three-day period to peruse legislation that some public interest groups say could help keep Congress accountable.

Nonetheless, recent efforts have drawn attention to the issue.

Hoping to tap into populist frustration with Washington and anxiety about health-care reform, Republicans last week demanded the Senate Finance Committee hold off voting on its bill until it was written into the full, dense legislative language and released publicly, instead of the more digestible and shorter "conceptual" language that the panel is now considering.

In addition, a group of more than 180 members in the House, mostly Republicans, is circulating a petition that would require all bills to be posted online for three days before a vote. The group demanded this week that Democratic leaders in Congress schedule a vote on the issue.

Also, a "Read the Bill" online campaign has started, with the support from nonpartisan groups and the GOP. And a group called Read to Vote has collected the signatures of more than 80,000 people to demand lawmakers pledge to read every page of every bill before they vote.

"We think it's important because the devil is in the details," said Lisa Rosenberg, the government affairs consultant for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group that advocates increased congressional accountability.

"A lot of groups are using it for partisan purposes; they see a chance to launch on this for not the most genuine of reasons," Rosenberg added, referring to the newfound enthusiasm among Republicans, who often didn't post legislation for 72 hours when they were in the majority.

Democrats blocked the GOP effort in the Senate, casting it as a Republican attempt to slow the health-care legislation. But in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has pledged to post the final bill online 72 hours before the last vote.

And bowing to GOP pressure, a group of congressional Democrats last week implored party leaders to enforce the current House rules, which already call for the posting of legislation 72 hours before a bill is passed. That requirement is often waived in the rush to get bills through Congress.

Brian Baird (D-Wash.), one of the few Democrats backing the GOP-sponsored 72-hour provision, said he has long supported posting bills as soon as possible, not only so constituents will have a chance to read bills, but so he will.

"There's a pattern here, the more important the bill, the more complicated it is, the less time we have to read it," said Baird, who says he has read every page of the health-care legislation. "And that's happened under Democratic control and Republican control."

But Democratic party leaders say the initiatives about reading bills are largely unnecessary.

Vincent Morris, spokesman for the House Rules Committee, which sets the House's schedule for considering legislation, noted that most bills are posted on the committee's Web site 48 hours before a vote. And although bills can be amended in that window before a vote, the proposed changes are also posted online.

"The vast majority of bills that have been considered by the House have been online for weeks," said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for Pelosi.

The push for greater transparency is long-standing. The minority party in Congress often accuses the majority of rushing through bills. Democrats frequently did it when Republicans controlled things.

But the cause has received additional momentum both from President Obama's calls for increased transparency in his administration and from the controversy over a section of the economic stimulus bill passed this year that limited the government's ability to block bonuses for executives at companies receiving federal funds under last year's bailout.

"Americans should be allowed to read the text of major bills before Congress votes on them. Previous Congresses, including Republican ones, failed to live up to this standard," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio.)

But Boehner himself won't satisfy all the transparency advocates. The lawmaker has acknowledged he has not read every word of the bills he has voted on in his 18 years in Congress.

"We have congressmen and senators who don't read the bills, and they brag about that in public " said Eric Yaverbaum, the co-founder of Read to Vote. "The say we're naive and do the whole page-count thing. They should read the bills we're going to put into law and make them easier to read."

No lawmaker of either party has backed Yaverbaum's effort.

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