Transparency: Read the Bill? See the Earmarks!

Via MLive.com, here’s House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers (D-MI) pooh-poohing the idea that members of Congress should read legislation before they vote on it.

He is under attack for it – attacks he can deflect because they’re partisan and because he’s from a quintissential safe district. So instead of gulping the too-potent elixir of outrage, let’s sip a while on substance.

Members of Congress don’t read bills. Instead, they efficiently (for them) place trust in staff and other politicians to know enough of what’s in a bill, and enough of the politics, to get by.

I agree with the ReadtheBill campaign, which wants Congress to post all legislation online for at least 72 hours before it is considered. It’s complementary to President Obama’s 38-times-broken promise to post bills online for five days before he signs them.

The point, of course, is not having 535 people sit down and thumb through every single page of the legislation coming before them. It’s having the 535 members of the House and Senate know what’s in the bills they vote on. But even more than that, it’s about letting the public know what is in the bills before Congress votes.

“What good is reading the bill if it’s 1,000 pages and you don’t have two days and two lawyers to find what it means after you read the bill?” says Conyers. Give us two days – no, make it three – and Americans, including lawyers, will let you know.

The thirst for transparency is not speculative. WashingtonWatch.com (a site I run) recently asked the public to gather data about congressional earmarks, which have long been shrouded in secrecy. In under two weeks, ordinary Americans have put more than 8,000 earmarks into the database to create a ”United States Earmarks Map.” (It loads a little slowly because of all that data.)

Through this project, a relatively small group of people will help expose how the Washington spending machine works, and by exposing it, change it.

You can review Chairman Conyers’s earmarks by selecting “Michigan” in the drop-down menu below the map, then selecting “Rep. John Conyers.”  And if the earmarks your member of Congress requested are not in the database yet, you can enter them here.