What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
photo credit: WTL Photos
As the last weekend before the 2011 general legislative session concludes its brief existence, it’s little wonder that political circles would be abuzz with controversy and chatter regarding the latest legislative developments. Rather than a split focus on multiple bills, or along typical partisan lines, this weekend’s discussion has pitted the legislature itself against the media and citizenry.
I refer to HB477, a bill sponsored by my Representative, John Dougall. This bill would, among several other things, amend the existing GRAMA (Government Records Access and Management Act) law to exempt instant messages, voicemails, video chats, and texts from records requests available to the public. While I believe there are many strong arguments to be made against the technical aspects of the bill itself, my commentary here will instead be focused on the procedural aspects surrounding its passage.
You see, while many individuals (including, no doubt, many/most of our state legislators) rightly lambast Congress for a whole host of parliamentary shenanigans and procedural corruption, it appears that the same arguments are not being equally applied to the state legislature. This is hypocritical.
More dark of night than light of day
The Sunlight Foundation is a major proponent of the effort to require that bills proposed in Congress be submitted for public review three days prior to a vote. Barack Obama campaigned on this idea, promising to not sign any non-emergency bill until the public had five days to review and provide input. (You can probably make a good guess as to whether he kept that promise.)
This is a good effort. Too many shady bills have been rammed through Congress with no time for public inquiry and input. Sadly, Utah’s legislature is not free of such lightning-speed legislative projects. This is partially due to the fact that the session only lasts 45 days, and many requests for legislation are made late in the game, applying a significant amount of pressure on the legislative attorneys and research staff who this year have faced a "logjam" of bills to produce. Many new bills will be released for the first time in this last week of the session, will avoid committee meetings altogether as a result, and will receive quick floor votes to determine the bill’s fate. The public is forced to tolerate this consequence of a part time legislature.
One is left to wonder, though, if other bills of similar magnitude have ever been given such high priority and rushed through the legislative proceedings with no delay. HB477 was released on March 1st, considered and passed in a House committee the following day, voted on in the floor on the 3rd, and then passed through a Senate committee and final floor vote on the 4th. In light of the part time legislature, this may be tolerable for your average bill—say, those dealing with bath salts, feral cats, guns, and gold—but to spring a bill of this length and magnitude on the public with less than 24 hours to review and react is flat out wrong.
One reason why this occurred was surprisingly provided by Senate President Michael Waddoups who told reporters that “it will complicate matters if it [HB477] has a weekend to fester.” He further noted that “nobody likes to do this in an election year, so now is the time.” Such candidness reveals more than the rational mind might conjure up as reasons for such haste.
Read the bill
How many times do you observe complaints that Congress passes bills spanning hundreds if not thousands of pages which its members have neither written nor read? The steady proliferation of omnibus bills and thick tomes of legalese makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for any congressman voting in favor of any such bill to claim to have read its provisions and understand its implications.
An organization named Downsize DC has proposed legislation that would require bills to be read aloud in full in Congress, and would further require that “every member of the House and Senate must sign a sworn affidavit, under penalty of perjury, that he or she has attentively either personally read, or heard read, the complete bill to be voted on.”
This, too, is a good effort—one which also might find application in our own legislature. With the length and complexity of HB477, it is fair to ask: did anybody other than the sponsors read it? If any other legislators did read it, they are surely in the minority. Others no doubt relied on talking points and summary statements to earn their vote, thus giving their consent to a bill they had not read nor, it can only be assumed, fully understood.
It is unfair, of course, to only target HB477 in regards to this legislative deficiency. It may be accurate to claim that the majority of votes cast in the legislature are for bills that have not been read by the individual casting the vote. This is a problem.
Under the radar
When legislators open a “bill file” to request that a bill be written or reviewed, the public is able to see the title of that request only. So as to avoid public scrutiny prior to the bill’s final text being released, these titles are often impregnated with vague words so as to mask the intent and issue of the bill. This is not entirely unreasonable, as it would be unproductive to invite heated debate on something that has yet to be produced. Still, one might think that the words would at least be descriptive enough to relate to the underlying issue. HB477’s bill file title, however, was “Changes to General Government”—a title not at all descriptive of, nor even relating to, the changes being made to the GRAMA law.
While this bit of deception may be an intelligent tactical move, it ultimately serves to prevent the public from observing what legislation is being drafted and providing their perspective and input. How can a representative represent if his/her constituents are not afforded enough opportunity to observe and respond to their activities?
I do not believe that all of the changes included in HB477 are bad. I do disagree with many of them. As HB477’s sponsor is my own representative, I must say that I feel somewhat cheated in being denied the opportunity to pass along my input on the bill. Supporters argue that the bill has been in the works for years; I was and am oblivious to this. I work full time, freelance on the side, juggle family, church, home responsibilities, as well as invest a significant amount of time in political activism, which at the moment includes tracking dozens of bills of interest in the legislature. We’re all busy. To deny us the opportunity to review a bill and offer comment for consideration prior to a vote is unfortunate, when a mere byproduct of our part time legislature and the normal and fair proceedings of that body, and unconscionable, when rammed through both chambers by leadership concerned about a bill “festering” in the public sphere for two days.
Heaven forbid the media help shine a little sunlight into the dark corners of the legislature’s 45 day blitz. Should HB477 become law, and that darkness be allowed to increase, one can only wonder where the actual “festering” will take place.