The House Health Care Bill — Transparent or Not?

The House health care bill is reportedly coming to the floor this weekend, and House Speaker Pelosi committed in September to a 72-hour delay between the time the bill is posted online and a final vote.

Is that 72-hour delay happening? Some say yes. Some say no.

On the “yes” side are some folks at the Sunlight Foundation. John Wonderlich wrote a post last Sunday called “72 Hours is Now.” He hailed the posting of the health care bill well in advance of a vote.

“Public outcry, partisan pressure, and rising expectations are forcing Congress’s hand,” he wrote, ”and it’s now (apparently) taken as a matter of course that this bill is online for a long weekend before its final consideration.”

Paul Blumenthal followed that up mid-week, sounding slightly more cautious notes but hailing the posting of the “final manager’s amendment.” His post restarted the 72-hour clock.

Which brings us to the folks who say no.

On the Weekly Standard blog, John McCormack says that Speaker Pelosi plans to violate the promise to post the health care bill online for 72 hours.

House members are still negotiating important issues in the bill — whether it will provide taxpayer-funding for abortions, for example. Pelosi is pushing for a Saturday House vote, and a number of big changes will be introduced, likely less than 24 hours before the vote takes place (if in fact it does).

Did Pelosi promise to post a bill? Yes — and she did, when it was pretty near final.

Meanwhile, though, the really tricky details — the stuff that matters to a lot of people — are still being hammered out. The spirit of the 72-hour pledge remains unfulfilled.

And this reveals a weakness in H. Res. 554, the preferred reform of the Sunlight-backed ”Read the Bill” effort. It would install a House rule giving bills 72 hours of online airing “before floor consideration.”

Floor consideration can and regularly does include the adoption of a “manager’s amendment” which can revamp a bill wholesale or add and subtract key details — things that matter.

H. Res. 554 has a loophole you can drive a truck through, and Speaker Pelosi is revving her engines.

This episode is a good, if regrettable, illustration that “self-reform” by a branch of government isn’t reliable. “Read the bill” is a good idea, but the genius of President Obama’s parallel “Sunlight Before Signing” pledge to hold bills coming out of Congress for five days before signing them is that it is based on interbranch rivalry. Especially, but not only, when there is partisan division between the president and Congress, competition among branches will promote the practice.

(More on “Read the Bill” and “Sunlight Before Signing” here.)

Getting Congress to hold up its own legislation for 72 hours, giving meaningful access to the public of every detail, is asking Congress to be altruistic. And Congress is anything but altruistic.