Senators should know precisely what they’re voting on

Weighing, debating and voting on proposed legislation is the most important thing Congress does. It’s serious business, and should be treated as such. If citizens don’t have faith in the legislative process, a big pillar of our democratic system crumbles.

It seems obvious, then, that lawmakers and their staffs should have adequate time to read proposed legislation before voting on it, either in committees or on the House and Senate floors. And yet that’s not always the case.

A good example will get some well-deserved scrutiny on Thursday in the Senate Finance Committee. The committee is meeting to adopt the committee’s rules and subcommittee assignments.

Sen. John Cornyn

Unlike other congressional committees, the Finance Committee engages in what it calls “conceptual mark-ups.” These don’t involve the exact legislative language under consideration. Instead, senators receive “a detailed narrative” of the proposed legislation.

Some people defend this process as promoting “plain English” discussions and amendments. While plain English is laudable (and surely Congress could use more of it), it’s less important than allowing committee members and staffers to see the exact language at stake.

Worse still, the committee’s traditions allow little if any advance notice of the language that’s to be debated, amended and marked up. This makes it impossible for even the most conscientious senators and their staffs to adequately prepare for the serious work at hand.

Some lawmakers have objected to this jamming process. One of them—Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) — hopes to change the committee’s process at Thursday’s meeting. He will propose commonsense changes to give senators adequate time to read legislation before starting debate, and to allow them to read the actual language being considered, not a “narrative” summary.

Cornyn’s proposed changes to the committee’s rules would require members to receive the actual legislative text at least 48 hours before it’s to be debated and voted on. For added clarity, the materials would include comparisons to existing law. Finally, senators seeking to amend the legislation would have to provide committee members their exact proposed language 24 hours before the mark-up.

Cornyn’s position is simple, and hard to oppose: Should lawmakers know exactly what they’re voting on, or not?

This is not a new topic. For years, reform-minded lawmakers and activists have complained about congressional rush jobs that force House and Senate members to vote on important legislation without adequate time for review, by them and their staffs.

The House, once a major offender, now requires proposed bills to be published 72 hours before being acted on.

In 2009, then-Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) sought to change the Finance Committee’s rules in ways similar to Cornyn’s current plan. He fell short. But now, nearly 12 years later, there’s no excuse for this important committee to continue playing hide-and-seek with the precise legislation that’s at stake.

Cornyn is no Johnny-come-lately to this effort, nor is he a strict partisan. He co-sponsored Bunning’s 2009 proposals. It’s a Democratic-controlled committee he’s now trying to change, but he has publicly criticized Republican leaders in the past for giving senators inadequate time and details to examine important proposals.

For instance, a year ago the Trump administration worked closely and almost exclusively with House leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement. “My understanding is there won’t be any opportunity [for senators] to have input before the draft is actually sent up here and the clock starts ticking,” Cornyn told reporters. “I am concerned, and there are others.”

It’s no secret that Congress’s approval ratings are abysmally low. Americans need more reasons, not fewer, to believe their elected representatives in Washington are working conscientiously to do their jobs well.

It’s not too much to ask that Senate Finance Committee members know exactly what language they are being asked to make into law. And it’s totally reasonable to give them 48 hours to read it advance.

Cornyn’s commonsense proposals deserve adoption.


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