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Thursday, March 21 , 2019, 1:15 am | Fair 51º


Harris Sherline: What Makes You Think We Read the Bills?

Vapor bills have become a common tactic to propose legislation without having to disclose details

Thirty-plus years ago, in 1978, state Sen. H.L. “Bill” Richardson, R-Glendora, wrote a small book with the intriguing title What Makes You Think We Read The Bills? In the book, he describes how politicians are actually elected by a very small percentage of the voters in their districts, 1 percent to 2 percent, and as a result, officeholders really listen only to that small constituency. The title of Richardson’s book also aptly describes the way Congress functions today in writing and voting on new legislation.

Harris Sherline
Harris Sherline

The surge of bills disgorged by Congress since President Barack Obama was elected further illustrates Richardson’s thesis, as a succession of major new laws has been approved without being read by most of the lawmakers who voted on them.

Legislation that moves through Congress without any legislative language is called a “vapor bill.” The term was derived from the word vaporware, an expression coined during the dot-com era to describe all-singing-all-dancing software that had not yet been written.

A recent example of a “vapor bill” is the Senate’s 2,000-plus-page health-care reform legislation, which had no legislative language and was amended in the Senate Finance Committee, where none of the committee members had read the actual bill.

At the time, the Washington Post reported that “President Barack Obama’s push for a sweeping health-care overhaul is going to be voted upon in the Senate Finance Committee ... and nobody has read the actual bill yet.” The Post also headlined, “Senate Finance Committee Releases Its Final Text of Health-Care Bill,” but if you clicked on a link to the “bill” that was referenced in the article, all you got was a 262-page description of the legislation — “no actual legislative language (was) being given to senators, staff or the American public.”

Aside from the obvious inappropriateness of having legislators vote on bills they have not read, one of the most significant problems with vapor bills is that the Office of Management and Budget can’t “score” the legislation — that is, estimate what such bills are likely to cost. The fiscal impact of any bill can’t be evaluated without the actual legislative language, and the health-care bill approved by Congress was more than 2,000 pages of what was essentially nothing more than an outline of the proposed law.

Vapor bills are not submitted to Congress by accident. They have actually been a key element of the current Democratic leadership’s strategy, which has been to put incomplete proposed legislation before lawmakers without having to disclose the details, to make it possible for just a few insiders to write the actual language of the bill behind closed doors.

Having successfully shepherded Obama’s health-care plan through Congress with a vapor bill, the Democratic leadership continued this strategy for other major legislation, such as the AIG insurance bonus bill and more recently the new banking and finance legislation. Lawmakers also were given just hours to examine the $789 billion stimulus plan, sweeping climate-change legislation and a multibillion-dollar bailout package before final votes were taken.

For example, the stimulus bill was 1,100 pages long and made available to Congress and the public just 13 hours before lawmakers voted on it. The bill failed to provide the promised help to the job market, and there was outrage when it was discovered that the legislation included an amendment allowing American International Group, a bailout recipient, to give out millions in employee bonuses.

Four major pieces of legislation have been passed by Congress using the same procedure:

» House energy and global warming bill — passed June 26, 2009, 1,200 pages. Available online just 15 hours before vote.

» $789 billion stimulus bill — passed June 26, 2009, 1,100 pages. Available online just 13 hours before debate.

» $700 billion financial service sector rescue package — passed Oct. 3, 2008, 169 pages. Available online just 29 hours before vote.

» USA Patriot Act domestic surveillance bill — passed Oct. 23, 2001. Not available to the public before debate.

The Sunlight Foundation, which lobbies Congress to bring more transparency to government, has begun attempting to get Congress to post bills online 72 hours before lawmakers vote on them. Lisa Rosenberg has said, “It would give the public a chance to really digest and understand what is in the bill and communicate whether that is a good or a bad thing while there is still time to fix it.”

Good suggestion, but as the oft-quoted saying advises: Don’t hold your breath.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.

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