Rushed legislation is rarely good legislation

Christine Todd Whitman
New Jersey Newsroom
July 15, 2009

When one thinks of the federal government, and the way in which our three branches of government interact, “speed” and “efficiency” are not words that immediately leap to mind. Our governmental system is notorious for its slow pace and minute course adjustments; indeed, our founders designed the checks and balances system to allow for an appropriately deliberative process.

Yet in Congress today, we are seeing an entirely different style of management. In what is becoming a pattern of behavior, bills and amendments — hundreds of pages in length — are released in the wee hours of the morning on the very day that the given bill or amendment is to be brought to a vote. While this has certainly happened before, I don’t recall ever seeing as many crucially important issues addressed in this way.

The stimulus bill, for example, was an 1,100-page document unveiled at 11:00 pm the night before the floor vote. If any representative intended to actually read the bill, he or she would have had to pull an all-nighter and read an average of about 100 pages per hour before the House was brought back into session at 9 the next morning.

Apparently, to be a member of Congress today, one must be a speed-reader — and an insomniac.

Of course, we know that this is not the case. In fact, I highly doubt that more than one or two members actually read the stimulus bill before they voted on it. For what it’s worth, you may recall that this bill calls for upwards of $790 billion.
Climate change measure

The same is true for the recent climate change bill. At 3 a.m. on the day the bill was to be voted on, the Democratic leadership released a 310-page amendment. I know of at least one member who read the entire 1,200-page bill, Rep. Leonard Lance, R-Clinton Township, but even he could only get through the synopsis of the amendment to that measure. Yet this critical piece of legislation was voted on and approved later that day.

The last-minute release of bills and amendments raises two serious questions: What happened to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s commitment to posting all major legislation on the Internet 48 hours before they are to be voted on? And why does the Democratic leadership release their most important policy proposals when most people — including members of Congress — are sleeping?
While the promise of transparency has gone by the wayside like so many other promises made by politicians, the late-night release of bills reveals the true way in which our elected officials in Washington are making policy.

Rarely do these last-minute amendments come about from a sudden flash of wisdom. Rather, these amendments include just enough perks and one-shot gimmicks to secure the votes of wavering members.

The 3 a.m. amendment to the climate bill, for instance, included a $3.5 billion project favored by Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio. She was undecided on the bill on Thursday. She voted for it on Friday.

Of course, this sort of late-night deal-making is nothing new for the Congress. That is why it was so encouraging when then-candidate Barack Obama promised to “make it impossible for congressmen or lobbyists to slip pork barrel projects or corporate welfare into laws when no one’s looking” and promised that “when I’m president, meetings where laws are written will be more open to the public — no more secrecy.”

Candidate Obama even promised that every bill that came across his desk would be posted on the Internet five days before he would sign it.

Unfortunately, he has broken that latter promise repeatedly. The very first bill Obama signed as president — the Lilly Ledbetter Act — was never posted online and was signed just two days after Congress passed it. And neither the credit card bill, the SCHIP bill nor the public lands bill were posted to the Internet until fewer than five days before they were signed.

If anything, this type of behavior is not surprising — it is simply an extension of the old ways of Washington that have been with us for decades. Rushed legislation is rarely good legislation — regardless of who is in power. Campaigns may be based on sound bites, but governance can and should take time.

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