By Patrick M. Gleason
Last week, just before the nation's longest budget impasse ended, Pennsylvania legislators had begun feeling the heat from constituents angered by their inability to pass a budget. Talking to reporters about the budget after a meeting at the governor's mansion, House Speaker Keith McCall (D., Carbon) told reporters that he and his colleagues hoped to "get it done and get it done now."
My question at this point is: What was the rush? I'm not saying the budget stalemate should have been dragged out any longer; indeed, the budget was long overdue and needed to be completed as soon as reasonably possible. However, there should have been more of an opportunity for review of the final product once an agreement was reached. Transparency and open debate on the state's spending priorities should not be sacrificed for the sake of "having something."
Thanks to politicians in Washington, we have seen this year what the hasty approval of large, costly, and complex legislation leads to: buyers' remorse on the part of both lawmakers and voters.
The U.S. House narrowly passed "cap and trade" climate-control legislation in June. To the outrage of many, a 300-page amendment was added hours before the final vote. In fact, the final version of the bill wasn't even available until 96 hours after it was passed by the House.
In February, the $787 billion "stimulus" bill, which spanned well over 1,000 pages, passed both the House and Senate just a little more than 13 hours after it was released from the closed-door meetings in which it was crafted. Weeks later, the public learned that the stimulus included language authorizing millions in bonuses for executives at AIG, the insurance giant that received a multibillion-dollar, taxpayer-funded bailout only months before.
The public shock and outrage was - shockingly and outrageously - shared by the very lawmakers whose votes permitted the bonuses. Not one member who voted for the stimulus bill could claim to have read it.
While it would be great to live in a world where lawmakers read the bills they vote on, requiring that they do so is not the answer. It's more important that bills - especially those with a fiscal impact - be available to the public well before a final vote is held. That's why lawmakers in Washington, Harrisburg, and at all levels of government should be required to put all bills, conference reports, and fiscal notes online for at least three days - but preferably five days - before a final vote.
There are at least some in Congress who recognize the wisdom of such a reform. A resolution introduced in June by Rep. Brian Baird (D., Wash.) would require all legislation to be posted online 72 hours prior to the final vote. Last week, eight Democratic senators sent a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) requesting that federal health-care reform legislation and the corresponding fiscal statement be posted online 72 hours before a floor vote.
The Pennsylvania budget and all state legislation with a fiscal impact should be subject to the same requirement.
As a result of reforms passed in 2007, there is technically a 24-hour "cooling off" period before legislation can be voted on in the Pennsylvania legislature. However, this rule has proven insufficient and easily surmountable.
New polling shows that voters want transparency brought to the legislative process. A recent Rasmussen poll found that 83 percent of voters say legislation should be posted online in its final form and be available for everyone to read before it is voted on.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, of which 36 Pennsylvania state legislators are active members, has even adopted model state legislation prohibiting hearings or votes on appropriations and revenue-related bills until 72 hours after introduction.
Legislation and budgeting will improve if concerned citizens, watchdog groups, the media, bloggers, think tanks, academics, and policy experts from across the political spectrum have the opportunity to analyze, digest, explain, and weigh in on it.
Lawmakers in Harrisburg let more than 100 days go by after the budget deadline passed. What's a few more to ensure that lawmakers and their constituents know precisely what they're getting?