This article was originally published in americanchronicle.com on March 21st, 2008
I recently used the DownsizeDC.org website to contact my representative and the senators from Illinois and tell them I support the "Read the Bills Act" and that I want them to vote for it. Senator Dick Durbin (well, probably not him personally but his staff) actually took the time to shoot me an email. This is very kind of his office to do, for it at least acknowledges me as a human individual and lets me know that they did take the time to read over my concerns, which is more than either my representative or Senator Obama did. Of course, Senator Obama can be forgiven because he is probably busy campaigning for president right now and probably doesn´t have time for the concerns of his constituents here in Illinois. Anyway, after reading the response from Senator Durbin´s office, it occurred to me that he may be just a little confused as to exactly what the "Read the Bills Act" is and how it will affect him. I thought I´d try to answer his letter and clarify it for him a little bit, and I thought my readers might also be interested in seeing just how our congress critters are serving us, their supposed bosses. Without any further ado, here´s the letter sent to me (in quotes) and my responses after each paragraph:
"Thank you for your message about knowing the full contents of legislation considered by Congress."
Well, I´m not sure that you have to "know the full contents" of the legislation, but I suppose that´s a good interpretation. Really, we just want you to read the bills.
"My staff and I try very hard to look at every bill that comes to the Senate floor. Provisions sometimes are carefully worded to appear innocuous and their import only becomes clear later. Other times, we catch something at the last minute but the will of the Senate as a whole is to move the measure forward and our only option is to try to overturn the provision in another forum."
First, I want YOU to read the bills, not your "staff." After all, isn´t that your job? Aren´t you paid to legislate and doesn´t legislation involve writing, reading and understanding laws? You´re the one who votes on the bills, not your staff. As for the other points, the "Read the Bills Act" is meant to take care of those problems. The reading of the bills and the week long waiting period and the posting of the bills on the Internet to give everyone a chance to peruse the bills are good for the final version only. A week should give you plenty of time to catch any unpleasant nuances and that week starts over should any amendments to the bill be added. I hope you are explaining this to me as a signal that you are in favor of this bill rather than just as an excuse as to why you´ve voted for such bad, unconstitutional bills in the past and then failed to repeal them.
"Many of the difficulties in this area arise from the fact that senators must eventually cast one vote on the final version of a measure and cannot endlessly amend the final version. Senators know this and sometimes add provisions to the final version of a popular bill that might not enjoy majority support individually. When the final bill is presented, we must vote on the measure as a whole rather than on each individual provision."
Exactly. This again is why you should pass the "Read the Bills Act." Oh, and by the way, there´s another bill introduced by Downsize DC called the "One Subject at a Time Act." That bill would also help stop exactly what you´re talking about. These bills are also simple and straight forward, not a thousand pages long like some of the tomes such as "The Patriot Act" which you guys passed without even knowing what was in it. You senators seem pretty good at passing bad, unconstitutional legislation and then avoiding accountability and blaming others for the problems you all create, but you don´t seem to have the ability to stand up and do something about these procedural inequities. Well, this is your opportunity to actually do something about the complaints you have, something positive and principled.
"To help address this issue, the Senate added a new provision to the Senate rules to allow senators to challenge the provisions of an otherwise unamendable conference report that were added in the conference committee and not contained in either the House or the Senate version of the bill. This provision was added in the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, which we designated S. 1 to signal the importance of ethics and lobbying reform."
Well, that´s nice. It certainly will "help" address those issues. The "Read the Bills Act" more than "helps" to address the issue, it makes the issue a non issue. Also, the "Read the Bills Act" is more than a provision to the senate rules, it is a law complete with an enforcement clause that would make any member of congress accountable should he not obey this law. Of course, I´m certain you would never have cause to disobey this law and so you would not have to worry about the enforcement clause.
"Several years ago, I was alerted at the last minute to a provision inserted in an omnibus budget measure by the tobacco industry. The provision sought to reduce tobacco companies' potential future tax obligations by up to $50 billion. I spoke out against it. The overall legislation, however, contained some very good provisions and enjoyed widespread support. Under the rules of the Senate, I was not able to strip that specific provision from the bill, as members could vote only on the measure as a whole. The measure passed and was signed into law, but I was able to attach an amendment to a later bill to repeal that particular provision. Under the new rules, if I face a similar situation in the future I might have a greater opportunity to strike the offending provision."
What a fascinating story. Just think how much simpler things would have been had the "Read the Bills Act" and the "One Subject at a Time Act" already been in force. You would not have had to go through all that arguing and amending. If the new rules will help you so much, just think what passing these new laws would do for you and all your colleagues. In fact, after reading that story and knowing how intelligent and honest all you senators are, I´m surprised this legislation hasn´t already passed unanimously.
"I will keep your concerns in mind as I continue to work for transparence in government. Thank you again for contacting me. Please feel free to keep in touch.
Richard J. Durbin
United States Senator
You´re very welcome. I will be sure to keep contacting you as long as I feel you are still avoiding these simple, common sense measures that should be made into laws.
"P.S. If you are ever visiting Washington, please feel free to join Senator Obama and me at our weekly constituent coffee. When the Senate is in session, we provide coffee and donuts every Thursday at 8:30 a.m. as we hear what is on the minds of Illinoisans and respond to your questions. We would welcome your participation. Please call my D.C. office for more details."
That´s very nice of you. I doubt I´ll ever get to see Washington DC as I´m just a working stiff who makes barely enough money to keep up with my bills, let alone take such an expensive trip, but should I ever find myself there for any reason during the brief periods when the Senate is in session, I will certainly keep that invitation in mind.
After reading your letter I am left with some questions. Do you support the "Read the Bills Act" or do you not? You never seemed to answer that question. Perhaps I am wrong, but judging by the tone of your letter and the excuses you put forward as to why bills don´t get read, I would assume that you are not in favor of the "Read the Bills Act" and you are instead in favor of less powerful provisions in Senate rules. This attitude confounds me. I must wonder why any thinking, principled individual would not be in favor of such a bill. Perhaps it is because such a bill might make you guys less powerful by making you more accountable. Perhaps it is because such a bill might make it harder for you guys to sneak into bills legislation that will help your friends and contributors make money. Perhaps it is because such a bill would help empower the people you are supposed to represent. Whatever the reason, Mr. Durbin, if you do not support the "Read the Bills Act" I urge you to reconsider. As time goes by, more and more people are going to find out about this and other common sense bills that will help the people take back control of their government. When this happens, it would certainly look good if you were perceived as a champion of such a bill, rather than a detractor.
The "Read the Bills Act:"
The "One Subject at a Time Act:"