The median family income for a family of four in the United States these days is approximately $56,500. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate earn $179,000 annually. Each chamber’s leadership makes even more: $193,400. For this kind of money, taxpayers -- who pay these salaries -- might expect their elected representative to do their jobs.
Legislators are paid to … well, legislate. Legislating means crafting policy proposals, meeting with constituents, holding legislative hearings, and, ultimately, voting. High school students who come to Washington, D.C., still get copies of that perennial civics favorite, “How A Bill Becomes A Law.” But that brochure never discloses the reality of the American legislative process and how it differs significantly from that cheerful civics description.
That situation is what prompted Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, to again propose legislation, timed just as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced a new GOP-sponsored health-care-reform bill, mandating that Senators first read legislation before they vote on it. If you are an elected representative, shouldn’t there be a presumption that before you decide how to vote, you actually know what you’re voting on? It’s not acceptable for members just to be told by their party’s Whip how they should vote as they enter the chamber.
One of the more revealing comments in this regard was made by then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi who was commenting on the proposed Affordable Care Act. She remarkably said that, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”
The “Read the Bills Act" was first proposed in 2006. Senator Paul endorsed it in 2010 and proposed similar legislation in June 2012. If enacted, the bill would not only promote greater transparency in government by requiring that bills be posted publicly at least 72 hours before a vote, but it would also most certainly produce legislation that was clearer, more coherent, and much shorter.
The new Senate Republican health care proposal is 142 pages long. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, on June 22 whether he had read the new proposal. Senator Cornyn held up the bound text, said that he hadn’t yet read it, but announced that given its relative brevity, he planned to read the bill that evening. By contrast, the Obama administration’s 2010 Affordable Care Act contained some 2,700 pages, roughly the length of Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” one of the longest novels ever written. How many elected officials read that bill?
Is it really asking too much of our well-paid public servants in Washington to take the time to read and understand legislation before they vote on it? One of the more revealing comments in this regard was made by then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi who was commenting on the proposed Affordable Care Act. She remarkably said that, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” At least she was being candid.
Pelosi’s remark, however, stands in sharp contrast to what Congress expects from others. For example, the 2003 Sarbanes-Oxley Act (intended to protect investors from fraudulent accounting practices) requires that chief executives and chief financial officers of publicly traded companies certify with each quarterly-earnings report that they have read their report and that it is accurate. Failure to do so can result in stiff civil penalties and, under certain circumstances, criminal liability. A health-care bill that impacts nearly 18 percent of the country’s gross domestic product has the potential for creating far more harm than almost any corporate quarterly earnings report imaginable.
So why do so many members of Congress not take the time to read bills before they vote? It’s probably not because they are lazy. These men and women are typically Type A, driven individuals. It’s probably not because they are stupid or have short attention spans. You don’t get to serve in Congress -- at least for very long -- if you are intellectually challenged.
The answer is much simpler: they don’t have enough time. And the one reason they don’t have enough time is because they spend an inordinate amount of their time dialing for dollars to fund their next reelection campaign. Some members of Congress have confessed to spending more than 40 percent of their time raising money. American taxpayers, in effect, are subsidizing nonstop electioneering in a manner that precludes their elected representatives from doing their real jobs.
We need an overhaul of how our Congress works, and we can start by mandating that members certify that they have read legislation before they vote on it. Perhaps a more comprehensive bill, the “Making Congress Work for the American People Act,” (with “Work” having more than one meaning) should be considered – a bill that addresses the multiple dysfunctions of our Congress. This legislation could include: (1) banning all fundraising by members whenever Congress is in session, (2) withholding pay from all members if appropriations bills are not completed on time, (3) posting all legislation publicly at least 72 hours before a vote, (4) using technology to track changes in the legislative drafting process to allow more public scrutiny and accountability, (5) extending the Congressional workweek beyond what has now become a routine three days, and (6) having fewer and shorter Congressional recesses.
Something tells me that members of Congress would read every word of this proposed bill. When traditional American pragmatism and common sense merge with today’s resurgent populism on the left and the right, it is likely that members of Congress will change their ways and start delivering for the American people and not just for themselves.
Charles Kolb is CEO of DisruptDC. From 1990-1992, he served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy in the George H.W. Bush White House, and from 1997-2012, he was president of the Committee for Economic Development.