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AIG Bonuses Renew Call for Congress to Read Bills

(AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

The fine print in the stimulus bill authorizing the AIG bonuses, which was rushed through the U.S. Congress at lightning speed, has led to a renewed call for politicians to read legislation before they vote on it.

That kind of rule may seem like plain common sense, but it's surprisingly common for members of Congress to be handed a bill that's hundreds or thousands of pages long -- and have only a few hours to read it before a vote. In other words, legislators may approve complex and important measures even though they may not know what they're actually voting on.

Jim Babka, executive director of a non-profit, non-partisan group called Downsize DC, says the AIG-bonus flap has prompted more interest in a project he's been advocating called Read the Bills Act.

"When they were debating the stimulus bill, Republicans found that this was their most effective talking point," Babka said in an interview on Wednesday. "The way we've written the Read the Bills act, it would cause Congress to slow down and pass smaller bills."

The Read the Bills Act is as simple to describe as it will be difficult for Babka and his allies to enact. A draft they've prepared says that each bill must be read aloud before a quorum in the Senate and House of Representatives; that each legislator voting "aye" must file an affidavit saying they're familiar with the contents; and that laws that don't meet these requirements can be challenged in court.

The only hitch is that no members of the House or Senate have been willing to sponsor this legislation, which would, after all, curb their own power and result in additional duties. Babka says to check back with him in a few weeks for more news.

If momentum develops for Downsize DC's Read the Bills Act, Babka will have Sen. Chris Dodd to thank. The Democratic senator, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, admitted last week that he was responsible -- he pointed the finger at the Obama administration -- for quietly altering the portion of the stimulus bill to allow the AIG bonuses.

Because House and Senate members were given virtually no time to read the bill, nobody noticed those alterations at the time. And that has given read-the-bill proponents a potent new source of ammunition.

"The United States Congress is dangerous," radio host Rush Limbaugh said last week. "They put the bonus law in the stimulus bill that nobody read! The stimulus bill contained the details of these bonuses." (Here's a video clip of Republicans unsuccessfully trying to have the bill read aloud.)

Rep. Ron Paul, the former Republican candidate for president, said after the vote that the entire House received five copies of the 1,000-page bill. "It essentially was not available to us," Paul told CNN. "Who can stay up all night and read a thousand pages? So obviously it was done like business as usual. Things have been going on like this for a long time, but this one was a little bit worse and bigger than usual, so it was not a very good day for America."

This is a bipartisan concern. Babka notes that Rep. Maxine Waters, one of the House's most liberal Democrats, has questioned this process. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, told that none of his Senate colleagues would "have the chance" to read the stimulus bill before the vote. Sen. Max Baucus, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has said rushing the stimulus through was a mistake.

Leaving your political rivals in the dark is, of course, a long-standing tactic that's thoroughly bipartisan. When Republicans controlled Congress, they did the same thing when holding a vote on the Patriot Act; Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts dubbed it at the time "an outrageous procedure -- a bill, drafted by a handful of people in secret, comes to us without a committee review and immune to amendment."

The Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan group that gives transparency grants for open-government Web projects, has said it is "outraged" by the loophole that Dodd inserted in the stimulus bill. A chronology the group created says the final language of the 1,100-page bill was made available around 10:45pm, and the vote was held about 12 hours later. (Here's another video showing how the final version had handwritten notes on it.)

This procedure lent itself to some theatrics, with House Minority Leader John Boehner dropping the thick sheaf of paper on the floor during the debate and saying: "Here we are with 1,100 pages -- 1,100 pages -- not one member of this body has read. Not one... I don't know how you could read 1,100 pages between midnight and now. Not one member's read this. What happened to the promise that we're going to let the American people see what's in this bill for 48 hours?"

A few days earlier, the House had unanimously approved a non-binding, pro-transparency measure that assured members they would have 48 hours to read the bill. Nor did President Obama abide by his campaign promise to post all non-emergency bills "on the White House website for five days."

The Sunlight Foundation's answer is a petition that says: "Congress should change its rules to require that non-emergency legislation and conference reports be posted on the Internet for 72 hours before debate begins." It's endorsed by liberal groups such as Free Press and the Media Access Project and conservative ones including the National Taxpayers Union and Americans for Tax Reform.

That read-the-bill idea is lacking the sharp teeth of Babka's proposal. It has no enforcement mechanism if Congress ignores the rule, and invites routine measures to be characterized as "emergency" proposals, something the executive branch has done for decades. On the other hand, because it's not as far-reaching, it has a better chance of convincing our elected representatives to curb their own penchant for secrecy.

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