Shortly after Ohio Republican John Boehner was re-elected speaker of the House of Representatives, and the 113th Congress was sworn in Thursday, the House approved rules for its new session. As with the last Congress, the rules include a requirement that all legislation be made public at least three days before a vote. This was a great idea when it was first adopted, but we urge House leadership to do a better job heeding it this time.
During the first two years of the Obama administration, Republicans were incensed as Democrats, who controlled both houses of Congress, rammed through major legislation such as the economic stimulus package and the national health care law without allowing lawmakers and the public adequate opportunity to read and debate the legislation. In the 2010 midterms, Republicans hopped on the "read the bill" bandwagon and vowed to usher in more transparency if they were to gain power.
"If we're lucky enough to be in the majority and I'm lucky enough to be speaker, I will not bring a bill to the floor that hasn't been posted online for at least 72 hours," Boehner told Fox News in July 2010. That September, Republicans outlined their agenda in a pamphlet titled "A Pledge to America." The document read: "We will ensure that bills are debated and discussed in the public square by publishing the text online for at least three days before coming up for a vote in the House of Representatives. No more hiding legislative language from the minority party, opponents, and the public. Legislation should be understood by all interested parties before it is voted on." The law became part of the rules package that was adopted when Boehner first became speaker in January 2011.
Unfortunately, under Boehner's leadership, the rule has been waived or disregarded when it's been inconvenient -- in the spring 2011 government shutdown fight, the summer 2011 debt limit fight and the more recent "fiscal cliff" showdown. Although the House leadership knew the fiscal cliff was coming for two years (on the tax side) and one year (on the sequester cuts side), the text of the bill to defuse the crisis became available to senators just six minutes prior to their vote. It was slightly better in the House, but members still had less than 24 hours to read, analyze and decide.
Despite reservations about many of its provisions, we reluctantly supported the fiscal cliff compromise because it prevented income tax increases on 99 percent of Americans. But we still believe that those who didn't share our view deserved adequate time to debate the bill and that the American public should have had more time to review it, especially given its significant policy ramifications.
There are many excuses -- understandable ones, even -- for waiving the 72-hour rule when an urgent fiscal showdown or the threat of a government shutdown arises. But in fact, no excuse suffices. If anything, panic situations like these demand even more transparency. If members of Congress are constantly being prodded to vote blindly for massive bills based on threats and fear, then the Republican House majority can hardly claim it is being more responsible than its utterly irresponsible Democratic predecessor.
With several major budget battles expected in the first three months of 2013, Boehner will have several chances to show how deep his commitment goes to honoring his transparency pledge. We urge him to do so consistently, even -- or rather, especially -- when it's not convenient.