Obama’s Next Step on Transparency: A Shortcut

by on February 3, 2009 · 15 comments

I’ve been following President Obama’s early moves on government transparency here on Tech Liberation and on the Cato@Liberty blog.

Last week, Obama’s first broken campaign promise was the pledge to post legislation online for five days before signing it.

Well, the White House is working to address that, but it appears to be doing so with a half-measure that comes up short. On Sunday, the White House blog announced that the SCHIP legislation pending in the Senate was up for public comment. And it is, of course, but it hasn’t passed the Senate yet.

It was implicit in the promise to post bills online for five days prior to signing that the bill posted would be the one passed by the House and Senate and presented to the President.

If the White House were to implement the promised practice of leaving bills sitting out there, unsigned, after they pass Congress, that would have significant effects. The practice would threaten to reveal excesses in parochial amendments and earmarks which could bring down otherwise good bills. President Obama’s promised five-day cooling off period would force the House and Senate to act with more circumspection.

Taking comments on a bill as it makes its way through the House and Senate does not have the same salutary effect. If the White House is trying to start the five-day clock on the SCHIP bill with the posting of a comment page on Sunday, that is not consistent with President Obama’s promise.

  • dm

    I had exactly the opposite reaction (and almost mentioned this in a response to last week's comment on the Ledbetter Act) — posting the bill on the White House site after it had passed Congress alwasy struck me as a pretty empty gesture, since Presidents rarely veto bills, and public comment is unlikely to have that effect — which is the only option between Congressional passage and the President's desk.

    By posting the bills before Congress acts, there's a chance for public comment to actually affect the bill.

  • http://www.docstoc.com/search/dennis-carey Dennis C

    thanks for the post

  • Jim Harper

    @dm – Bills are, of course, available on the Thomas system throughout the process. But the final content of a bill is determined on the floor of the House or Senate just before passage. Especially on the big bills we've seen hurried through Congress lately, there is no public print of a bill as it emerges from Congress and arrives at the President's desk.

    I note that the President just signed the SCHIP bill, which passed the House today – obviously he didn't wait five days to do it. There is a copy of the final bill (as passed by the Senate late last week) up on Thomas, but I don't know when it came up, and the practical upshot is that the public didn't get a look at it.

    If there were a rule that it sat in the White House for five days, we'd be certain to have a chance to look at the final product – not just interim products or a couple days shot at (in this case) a 280-page bill.

  • Pingback: President Signs SCHIP - No Five-Day Review | The Technology Liberation Front

  • dm

    Yes, I know about Thomas.

    And yes, I agree that, if he said he was going to do the five-day thumb-twiddle, he should do it. However, when he announced the thumb-twiddle, I thought it was a pointless gesture.

    On the other hand, the Republican Congress played shenanigans like substantially rewriting bills in conference committee, and there was that midnight clause that Republican Congressman inserted into the text of the bill after it had been voted on by both houses. I think there's some litigation pending about that.

    So referring to it as a “thumb twiddle” is a bit tendentious, I'll concede.

    But it's really much more important for the legislation to be publicly available at a time when public comment can actually change the legislation, than for it to be available before being signed — because a Presidential veto is binary (unless you want to continue the bad days of Presidential signing statements).

    After it's signed, of course, the full text of the bill is available for public comment — and as likely to be changed (through partial repeal) as it is between Congress passing it and the President signing it.

    Now, what would be better (but not an option for the Executive) is for bills to be available in Congress for a few days before being voted on.

  • Jim Harper

    A go-slow requirement in Congress would be better, but you haven't acknowledge at all this point:

    If the White House were to implement the promised practice of leaving bills sitting out there, unsigned, after they pass Congress, . . . [t]he practice would threaten to reveal excesses in parochial amendments and earmarks which could bring down otherwise good bills. President Obama’s promised five-day cooling off period would force the House and Senate to act with more circumspection.

    Knowing exposure would come to their work before it was too late, Members of Congress would change their behavior. Agree or disagree?

  • dm

    I disagree, as I thought I'd made clear.

    “Knowing exposure would come to their work before it was too late…” Once the law is passed by Congress, it's already too late.

    Presidents don't veto bills except under extreme circumstances. To do so costs political capital, and makes it harder for them to get legislation they want. The “excesses in parochial amendments and earmarks” aren't going to alter whether an important bill gets signed or not — that's why such amendments get made in the first place. The bill is “too big to fail.”

    Furthermore, most members of Congress would view the exposure to be a feature, not a bug. Most of those petty amendments and earmarks are what they call constituent services. They probably boast of them in their constituent newsletters.

  • dionusos

    I agree it's too late for the bill, but the point is that it's not too late for the public to put members of Congress under fire. This in turn gives members of Congress reason to worry that if they don't clean up their act in FUTURE bills, their chances for re-election go down.

    You're thinking only in terms of that one bill. The point is that exposure to the public will affect the HABITS of members of Congress.

  • dionusos

    I agree it's too late for the bill, but the point is that it's not too late for the public to put members of Congress under fire. This in turn gives members of Congress reason to worry that if they don't clean up their act in FUTURE bills, their chances for re-election go down.

    You're thinking only in terms of that one bill. The point is that exposure to the public will affect the HABITS of members of Congress.

  • dionusos

    I agree it's too late for the bill, but the point is that it's not too late for the public to put members of Congress under fire. This in turn gives members of Congress reason to worry that if they don't clean up their act in FUTURE bills, their chances for re-election go down.

    You're thinking only in terms of that one bill. The point is that exposure to the public will affect the HABITS of members of Congress.

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