Democracy: The Joke Is on Us

It turns out, the joke was on us.

This August, while thousands of Americans were dutifully attending town hall meetings to let their elected representatives know they oppose big government, big bureaucracy, high tax health care, unelected congressional staff were huddling in Washington writing their own health care bill.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee bill that emerged on Sept. 17 had actually been voted on by the committee two months earlier. For two months, the Democrats who control the committee refused to let anyone read the bill, not members of the committee, not other Senators, not the American people.

Now we know why. While they held the bill hostage, unelected HELP committee staff made over 70 changes to it. No votes were held as substantive parts of the bill were changed or eliminated.

With the technology we have today, there's no excuse for the American people to be cut out of the lawmaking process.

Provisions that had been agreed to by the elected members of the committee--such as requiring parental consent for children to receive health services at school--were eliminated at the whim of partisan staff members.

And this is just the beginning of a legislative process that has become so corrupted it's a wonder we bother to elect members of Congress anymore. Once the Senate Finance Committee passes their health care bill, three Senators--Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-WV), Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and HELP Committee member Chris Dodd (D-CT)--will meet in secret with their staff to produce a final bill.

Think about it: All of the power of the United States Senate to transform one-sixth of our economy will be in the hands of three men and their aides. It's government by staff, aided by lobbyists, for the benefit of bureaucrats.

No wonder so many Democrats in Congress are so dead set against having members read--and more importantly, allowing the American people to read--bills before they vote on them.

Republicans and moderate Democrats have repeatedly pushed for a requirement that bills be posted online 72 hours before a vote in order to allow Americans and members of Congress to know what's in them before they become law. The Democratic leadership has repeatedly blocked or voted down these attempts at transparency.

An overwhelming majority of Americans support "read the bill" reforms, but Democratic leaders dismiss this desire for openness with a mixture of condescension, contempt and confusion.

"Let's be honest about it. Most people don't read the legislative language," was Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry's response.

"I don't expect to actually read the legislative language because reading the legislative language is among the more confusing things I've ever read in my life," said Sen. Thomas Carper, D-DE.

"What good is reading the bill if it's a thousand pages and you don't have two days and two lawyers to find out what it means after you read the bill?" said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. John Conyers, D-MI.

The Democrats' insistence on not reading bills before they make them law brings to mind two possible motives, neither of them good: Either they are trying to rush through laws they know the American people don't support, or they are passing legislation that is too sweeping and complicated to be understood.

Either way, they're making a mockery of government "of the people, by the people and for the people."

With the technology we have today, there's no excuse for the American people to be cut out of the lawmaking process. There's even less excuse for lawmakers themselves to opt out of it.

We've seen what results when bills aren't read before they're passed. The mammoth, pork-filled $787 stimulus bill didn't appear online until after 10pm the night before it was voted on.

Here's a solution: Every bill should be posted online at least 72 hours before a vote. Every committee "markup" meeting to amend a bill should be webcast. And every amendment should be filed online in real time.

If we demand our right to be a part of the legislative process, we can keep our republic. If we don't, the joke really is on us.

Newt Gingrich is a senior fellow at AEI. David Merritt is a project director at the Center for Health Transformation.

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