KOLB: To Keep Congress Accountable, Make Them Read Before They Vote

Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush
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Last month, before adjourning for the year, Congress passed yet another one of those mammoth, catch-all, middle-of-the-night, nobody-has-even-read-it spending bills. The package, which also included significant tax cuts, totaled 2,313 pages and cost $1.4 trillion. The bill also increased the annual budget deficit that now will exceed $1 trillion for a second successive year.

If you’ve ever tried to read one of these bills, or even a portion of one, you know that they don’t contain finely crafted prose. There’s no legislative narrative: it’s new laws plus a jumble of incomprehensible references to existing statutes. Another narrative, however, emerges from this process — an out-of-touch Congress failing to do its fundamental job of appropriating money in an orderly, disciplined, and thoughtful way.

This year-end legislative monstrosity is roughly the length of Marcel Proust’s monumental seven-volume novel, “In Search of Lost Time.” I like reading long novels, and a few years ago I tackled Proust’s masterpiece (in English). While I also read other works of fiction and nonfiction, the Proust project took me the better part of, well, two years.

Members of Congress had less than two days to read, assimilate, and comment on legislation roughly the length of Proust’s epic novel. One Republican senator, Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy, was so disgusted by the experience that he penned a blistering Wall Street Journal op-ed decrying the process as “opaque and unfair.” He said the legislation also “masked terrible policy” and charged bluntly that the “Senate leadership clearly didn’t want [the legislation and the process] to be understood or discussed.”

According to Cassidy, this situation “is not an anomaly. It’s the latest in a pattern.” And the pattern is an undemocratic one where only a few people really know what’s going on. Rushing bills like this through Congress usually yields two results: (1) significant drafting mistakes that require subsequent corrective legislation (often rushed as well), and (2) Members and the public learn afterwards that items were included (often added by staff at the behest of lobbyists) of which they were unaware.

So much for our elected representatives carrying out the one job for which we pay them — passing meaningful legislation that’s in the country’s best interests. It turns out that most of them are little more than ciphers going through the motions. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2010 famously admitted as much after passage of the 2,300-page Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”): “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”

This is how our democracy works? It’s crazy, but it’s also fixable.

In 2002, Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley (“SOX”) bill that focused on corporate auditing accountability, responsibility, and transparency. The quarterly reports filed by publicly held U.S. corporations had to be accurate. Under SOX, CEOs and CFOs were required to certify in writing the accuracy of the information contained in these filings. If they make mistakes or misleading assertions, they could face significant penalties and liabilities.

Why not hold members of Congress to a similar standard? After all, their actions touch millions of Americans and are far more consequential than a corporation’s quarterly reports. Before members vote on legislation, have them certify publicly that they have read the legislation and understand what it means. The process would be simple.

House members vote electronically with a card. Give them two cards to swipe: the first card would signify that they have read and understand the legislation, and the second card would enable them to cast their up-or-down vote. A member could not vote on a bill’s substance without having swiped the first card.

In the Senate, where votes are cast orally, Senators would vote twice on each legislative item.  The first vote signifies that they have personally read and understand the legislation; the second vote is a “yea” or “nay.”

This process is mechanistic and may strike some as silly (like dealing with young children), but that’s what it may take to alter the current dynamic and instill some accountability, integrity, thoughtfulness, and transparency to the legislative process. Another byproduct of this approach might well be shorter, better-crafted legislation without those middle-of-the-night surprises.

Will the Congress adopt these suggestions anytime soon? Unlikely.

But at some point in our future, when our budget situation becomes a crisis that threatens our overall economic standing, Americans might then wake up and demand that Members of Congress spend less time raising campaign contributions and more time actually doing their job.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House