Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Real transparency

Columnist Jeff Jacoby presents Exhibit 1,000,001 as to why our political caste is dysfunctional and doesn’t seem to care.

Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, is the majority leader in the House of Representatives. At a news conference last week, he was talking about the healthcare overhaul being drafted on Capitol Hill, and a reporter asked whether he would support a pledge committing members of Congress to read the bill before voting on it, and to make the full text of the legislation available to the public online for 72 hours before the vote takes place.

That, reported CNSNews, gave Hoyer the giggles: The majority leader “found the idea of the pledge humorous, laughing as he responded to the question. ‘I’m laughing because . . . I don’t know how long this bill is going to be, but it’s going to be a very long bill,’ he said.’’

Then came one of those classic Washington gaffes that Michael Kinsley famously defined as “when a politician tells the truth.’’ Hoyer conceded that if lawmakers had to carefully study the bill ahead of time, they would never vote for it. “If every member pledged to not vote for it if they hadn’t read it in its entirety, I think we would have very few votes,’’ he said. The majority leader was declaring, in other words, that it is more important for Congress to pass the bill than to understand it.

“Transparency’’ is a popular buzzword in good-government circles, and politicians are forever promising to transact the people’s business in the sunshine. But as Hoyer’s mirth suggests, when it comes to lawmaking, transparency is a joke. Congress frequently votes on huge and complex bills that few if any members of the House or Senate has read through. They couldn’t read them even if they wanted to, since it is not unusual for legislation to be put to a vote just hours after the text is made available to lawmakers.
Jacobs notes that while 2009 is perhaps a high water mark for ramming through unread legislation with stimulus and cap-and-trade, Republicans pushed through the Patriot Act in just 3 days in 2001.

He lists a number of fixes from liberals, conservatives and libertarians — all of them well-intentioned, and none of them likely. Politicians don’t agree to rules that limit their prerogative — they seek office for years or decades to have the power to tell others what to do, and refuse give up the power once they have it. (Exhibit A: GOP 1994 promises for voluntary term limits. Exhibit B: Democrat 2006 promises to curtail earmarks.)

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