“Schoolhouse Rock!” taught generations what it takes for a bill — how it hopes and prays that it will — to make it from Capitol Hill to the president’s desk. But members of Congress are looking to update that lesson for the 21st century.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s bipartisan modernization committee took the first small steps last week, offering up suggestions to standardize how bills are drafted and published, to make committee work available in online databases, and to make lobbyist information more readily available.
“Transparency in Congress promotes more accountability to our constituents, and that’s a good thing,” said panel Chairman Derek Kilmer, Washington Democrat, and Vice Chairman Tom Graves, Georgia Republican, in a statement. “These bipartisan recommendations are just the first step towards making the legislative branch more effective and accessible for the American people.”
The changes aren’t huge, but they are bipartisan — which means there’s a chance they might go somewhere in an otherwise gridlocked Congress.
Much of the focus is on committees, where, according to Mr. Bill in “Schoolhouse Rock!”, it can be “a long, long wait, while I’m sitting in committee.”
One recommendation was to create a standard for legislative markups, when a bill is actually being debated and amended, or “marked up,” in committee.
The committee also suggested a centralized database of House committee votes. Right now, some committees post vote totals on Twitter, while others bury the tallies deep inside report language, where few people outside of lobbyists and bureaucrats know to find them.
And the existing database of lobbyists, which can be unwieldy, should be updated to make it easier to connect individual lobbyists with the projects they’re working on, the modernization committee said.
Michael Thorning, associate director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Congress Project, told The Washington Times that while these ideas are still in the works, they have the potential to make the legislative process much easier for both lawmakers and the public.
“If you’re not someone in-the-know in Washington and you don’t subscribe to a pay-for service that finds that information for you, it can be pretty difficult information to find,” he said. “This is information that ultimately belongs to the public and therefore it shouldn’t be that hard for them to find it.”
He said the recommendation for a markup standard would allow people to see how amendments or various proposals will change a piece of legislation, which would make it easier to sort through massive bills in a short time frame.
“As Congress has moved more towards either comprehensive legislation on one particular topic or omnibus legislation, it is easier for members to miss things,” Mr. Thorning said. “It’s not their fault individually. It’s a difficult job, and these are big bills. Not often are they given lots of time to read them and go through them thoroughly.”
The other proposal would create a list of federal agencies and programs, along with their expiration dates, so members can keep track of when they need to review and potentially reauthorize certain programs.
According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, expired programs that have gone under Congress‘ radar add up to about one-quarter — hundreds of billions of dollars — of discretionary spending.
“It’s shocking that this already didn’t exist in one, easy-to-access place,” Mr. Thorning said. “Congress cannot measure what it can’t track.”
All five of the committee’s suggestions were adopted by a unanimous vote from the 12 members. The suggestions will now be referred to other committees with jurisdiction over the lobbying databases and the legislative process.
Meanwhile the modernization panel promised more recommendations “on a rolling basis throughout the remainder of the year.”
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