We've been following the House GOP's promise to put the text of bills online at least three days before a vote. As we've noted before (see our previous updates below), the House has sometimes squeaked by, posting a bill very late at night, waiting one day, and voting the next. They argued that having the bill posted -- even briefly -- on three separate days met the terms of House rules adopted at the beginning of the year, which specify that a bill cannot be considered until the third calendar day on which it has been posted.
That squeaking by ended with the compromise legislation that extended the federal debt ceiling. It was posted Aug. 1, 2011, the same day that members of Congress voted on it.
We should point out that, technically speaking, the vote still met the terms of the House rules. Congressional staff told us that the requirement for three calendar days does not apply to amendments passed between the House and the Senate, which was how this legislation developed, so the rules were neither violated nor waived. They also made the point that the final bill was very similar to bills promoted by both Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid. Finally, the legislation could be considered an emergency as the U.S. government was about to exhaust its legal borrowing authority.
But we're not swayed by those arguments.
For one thing, the U.S. Treasury Department warned
Congress at the beginning of May that the debt limit would need to be increased by Aug. 2. So the deadline wasn't a surprise or an unforeseen turn of events.
And, while the rules of the House may not have been violated, the campaign pledge is a different matter. It didn't have stipulations or caveats for amendments or emergencies. It said simply and clearly that bills should be published online "for at least three days" (emphasis ours).
We didn't have to search far to find that even House Republicans complained the budget deal was worked out behind closed doors and only made public on the day it was to come to a vote.
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., voted against the bill because he said it didn't include enough spending cuts. (Westmoreland is a member of the House Tea Party Caucus; its membership split 36-26 on voting for the bill, according to a report
from Fox News.)
But he lashed
out at his fellow Republicans for their lack of transparency.
"House Republicans also made a promise to the American people that we would bring back an open process here in Congress. Up until now, we have stuck with that promise. We've posted legislation on the Internet and given the American people and Members of Congress 72 hours to review it. We've brought back open rules on appropriations bills, allowing Republican and Democrat members alike to offer amendments. But now, after this deal was crafted behind closed doors with only a few members of leadership at the table, we were given less than 12 hours to read and review this extremely important legislation. More time is needed to make an informed decision about legislation of this size and scope. Unfortunately, once again, Congress has waited until the last minute to act, pushing us up against this artificial August 2nd deadline and forcing a decision on a bill it seems no one actually likes."
In ruling on this promise, we can't help but note how hard it is for elected officials on both sides of the debate to keep promises about transparency. (We've ruled two
of President Barack Obama's transparency campaign promises as broken, for example.) In defense of the House Republicans, they have worked to keep their promise on transparency, particularly in comparison with Obama, who almost immediately discarded
his campaign promise to post legislation online for five days before signing it. And in fact, Obama signed
the debt limit increase into law only hours after the Senate passed it on Aug. 2.
When it comes to transparency, it's often at the moment when leaders are most tempted to break the promise that it's most important to keep it. A major deal to reduce the nation's debt fits that category. The deal was negotiated almost entirely behind closed doors, the public got less than 24 hours to examine it before the House voted on it, and Congress knew about the deadline weeks ahead of time.
We rate this Promise Broken.