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Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan August 3, 2011

Debt deal gets fast-track vote to avert government default

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.

Our Sources

Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan May 3, 2011

Budget bill posted online Tuesday, voted on Thursday

Readers asked us to check into a recent House vote on the federal budget for fiscal year 2011. Members of Congress almost forced a budget shutdown before coming to a late agreement on April 8.

Negotiators from the White House, Senate and House of Representatives reached an agreement in principal on that Friday night and worked through the weekend to draw up formal legislation. Meanwhile, a stopgap measure continued funding the government.

The official agreement was posted very early in the morning on Tuesday. The House Rules Committee showed the budget legislation posted at 1:50 a.m.

The vote on the matter occurred on Thursday at 3 p.m.

As we've noted before (see updates below), we're tracking a promise to publish the text of proposals online "for at least three days before coming up for a vote in the House of Representatives." The House rules adopted at the beginning of the year define those as calendar days. So the budget proposal would meet that rule for having been public on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Some have noted -- most notably, open government advocates The Sunlight Foundation -- that Speaker of the House John Boehner made other statements during the campaign pledging a 72-hour window before a vote. By that standard, the budget bill falls short. At least one other bill recently was handled the same way.

The promise we're tracking is from the Republican document "A Pledge to America," and it says three days, not 72 hours.

We're documenting here that the Republicans are not airing legislation for a full 72 hours. As we've noted before, the Republicans may be adhering to the letter of their rule, but they've violated the spirit by rushing through legislation. So we leave the rating on this promise Stalled for now and will monitor how they do with future bills before making a final ruling.

Our Sources

Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan March 21, 2011

Did a vote on funding for NPR adhere to GOP campaign promises?

It's not an unfamiliar theme: Politicians don't like keeping promises about open government when a quick political victory is within grasp.

Back in 2009, it was President Barack Obama who signed laws for fair pay, children's health insurance and credit card reforms without first posting the legislation to the Internet for five days. His "sunlight before signing” campaign promise is still rated Promise Broken.

Last week, Republicans fast-tracked legislation to curtail funding for National Public Radio after Internet activist James O'Keefe distributed an edited video that appeared to show an NPR fundraising executive making disparaging remarks about the tea party movement, among other things.

On Tuesday, House Republicans posted legislation to the Rules Committee website. On Thursday, they brought it to the floor and voted for it.

Democrats said Republicans were fast-tracking the legislation to make political points. "Violating their own promises of transparency, the Republican majority held no hearings, no committee action of any kind, listened to no expert testimony, and provided no chance for the American people to weigh in,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., the ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee.  "Just by saying it is an emergency, apparently, in many minds, it does become one.”

Republicans, though, said they were adhering to their own House rules, which state that legislation can't be considered until the third calendar day. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday constitute three calendar days, according to their reasoning.

Still, during the campaign Republicans sometimes referred to a 72-hour rule for posting legislation. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., went so far as to bring a sign to the House floor, quoting Republican Speak of the House John Boehner saying, "I will not bring a bill to the floor that hasn't been posted online for at least 72 hours.” (Boehner said that on Fox News in July 2010; and he made similar comments at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2010.)

Meanwhile, the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation charged that the NPR funding measure broke pledges to post bills for 72 hours online before consideration, which means before debate begins. And by that measure, the Republicans certainly fell short.

We"re tracking the promise, though, from the Republican document "A Pledge to America.” It reads, "We will ensure that bills are debated and discussed in the public square by publishing the text online for at least three days before coming up for a vote in the House of Representatives. No more hiding legislative language from the minority party, opponents and the public. Legislation should be understood by all interested parties before it is voted on.”

We should note here that the NPR legislation is fairly brief. It's seven pages and took us less than 10 minutes to read. And the Senate still has to weigh in on the legislation, either to approve or stop it.

A spokesman for Boehner said the standard Republicans intend to uphold is the one from the pledge. "We used '3 days' in the Pledge to America, so that is what was 'pledged.'  He may have said '72 hours' at some point early last year, but we were perfectly clear long before the election that '3 days' is the standard,” Michael Steel said.

Finally, we should note that we looked for other measures that may have violated three-day rule, but we didn't find any. If the NPR measure is a violation of this promise, it's the first one we've found.

In considering our ruling, we found the NPR legislation was clearly fast-tracked. By a narrow definition of the House rules, it was posted during three calendar days. But it fell short of being posted for a full 72-hour, three-day airing that "by publishing the text online for at least three days before coming up for a vote in the House of Representatives" suggests. The Republicans may be adhering to the letter of their rule, but they've violated the spirit of not rushing through legislation. So we rate this promise Stalled for now and will monitor how they do with future bills before making a final ruling.

Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan January 6, 2011

House GOP directs bills to go online three days before action

Speaker of the House John Boehner took the gavel for the Republican majority, promising greater transparency. Toward that end, the House adopted rules that say a bill should be available online for three days before a vote.

Making sure the public (and members) could read a bill before a vote has long been a goal for open-government advocates. The new rules go a long way toward making that a reality. The rules say that it is a "point of order" that bills must be posted online for three calendar days before they may be acted upon.

Yet it's possible for points of order to be be waived from time to time. The nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation examined the new rules and warned that there are several ways House leadership or legislation could act to undermine the requirement to post bills online.

Nevertheless, the new rule means progress. "The spirit of the changes makes us optimistic that all bills will publicly available, online, for at least 72 hours before they are considered. The new majority is off to a good start," said Lisa Rosenberg, writing on Sunlight's blog on Jan. 4, 2011.

We're going to be watching the House Republicans to see if they do indeed post bills online for three days before voting. If they do, we'll rate this Promise Kept. For now, they've adopted a rule in favor of such posting, so we rate the promise In the Works.

Our Sources

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