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Editorial: Why rush to vote?

Giving members of Congress a three-day window to read proposed legislation they’re about to vote on wouldn’t seem that controversial. But where Washingtonian politics is concerned, things are rarely as transparent or straightforward as they should be.
Some lonely representatives are pushing congressional leaders to implement the so-called “72 hour rule.” It would require that any comprehensive legislation be posted online at least 72 hours before the final vote is scheduled. The idea being that this would give lawmakers as well as common citizens a chance to read legislation before it comes up for final passage. Think of it as promoting openness in government. Or, to put it in more earthy terms, think of it as a way to help ensure that taxpayers and their elected representatives aren’t buying a pig in a poke ó enacting measures that reflect the desires of special interests and partisan politics more than the will of the people.
Given the Obama administration’s vow to promote transparency in government, you’d think this would be a slam-dunk idea. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders aren’t enthusiastic. They promise they will attempt to follow the 72-hour guideline but aren’t willing to make it mandatory, arguing that the legislative process is just too esoteric to be subjected to the plebian glare of ordinary citizens.
They’re right, of course. Much of the legislation that emerges from Congress is written in language unintelligible not only to most citizens but to many of those voting on the measures. Too often, lawmakers don’t really know what’s in the legislation they’re approving. We saw that vividly on display during the slap-dash efforts to craft federal bailout legislation last fall and, more recently, with the economic stimulus measure early this year. Now, we’re likely to see something similar unfold with health-care reform legislation, which in one House version is already at 1,000-plus pages.
The solution to byzantine legislation is to use plainer English, not to rush through baroque bills before the ink is dry on the last-minute pork-barrel amendments. Lawmakers resisting the 72-hour rule are right in one respect. When lawmakers get down to the wheeling, dealing and horse-trading that inevitably occurs in shaping final versions of bills, it isn’t practical to post every incremental change online. But once a measure is in its final form, lawmakers and the public should have an opportunity to study it with due deliberation. Giving lawmakers 72 hours to read bills before they vote won’t necessarily lead to better legislation, but it would at least assure voters that the leadership of Congress has nothing to hide.

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