Sunlight Before Signing—-Pre-Posting Is Not OK

A regular, established practice of posting bills online when they’re sent him by Congress would fulfill President Obama’s Sunlight Before Signing promise, made to roars of applause on the campaign trail. It would allow Americans easy access to the most important part of what Congress and the president do.

But posting bills before Congress passes them, getting a jump on the five days of public review the president promised, seriously undercuts the value of Sunlight Before Signing.

This morning, Whitehouse.gov is displaying on its pending legislation page a link to “H.R. 1586 - To impose an additional tax on bonuses received from certain TARP recipients.” This bill has not been passed by both houses of Congress nor presented to the president.

H.R. 1586 is a “shell bill” that Congress has been batting back and forth, and it has covered various subject matters in its busy life. It indeed started out as a bill to tax the bonuses of executives in TARP-subsidized firms. When it passed the House, though, it had become the “Aviation Safety and Investment Act of 2010.” And this week it was amended in the Senate to contain a potpourri of spending and revenue programs. (WashingtonWatch.com cost estimate: $125 per U.S. family.)

Lets say a high schooler has been assigned by her teacher to monitor the bills President Obama receives from Congress. From the White House’s pending legislation page, she clicks on a link to find a bewildering hodgepodge of bill versions on the Thomas page for the bill. (Click on the image at right to see a screen capture.)

And none of the bill versions has passed Congress! Thomas, the Library of Congress’ legislative tracking service, tells visitors that the last bill listed is most recent. But the current version of the bill is item four of six, referred to as the “XXXXXXAct ofXXXX.” Thanks to Whitehouse.gov, our high schooler is misled into believing that President Obama will soon sign a tax on bonuses given to TARP-slurping executives when in fact a variety of other policies may soon pass.

The promise to post bills online for five days was a simple, common-sense transparency rule. It’s flabbergasting to find that it can’t be carried out in a simple, methodical way to give life to the idea that the people are entitled to oversee the government.

You get a bill from Congress, you post it. You wait five days, you sign it. Promise fulfilled! It’s not rocket science. Pre-posting is not OK.