Live from the Senate Finance Committee Mark-up

During the Senate Finance Committee mark up of the Baucus health bill today Senator Bunning of Kentucky put forth an innovative amendment. This amendment stipulated that before voting on the measure in Committee, legislative language would have to be accessible to the public for 72 hours and that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) would need to publish an official tally of how much this bill will cost the American people and what the real impact will be on health costs.

There are several key points to the importance of this amendment that have to be highlighted:

  1. What the Finance Committee is debating and amending is a 220-page conceptual outline of policy changes that will not be translated into actual legislative language until after the committee finishes debating and voting on amendments to this conceptual document.
  2. The Chairman’s reasoning for not allowing his colleagues, and the American people, to see the full legislative text is…Senate Finance Committee tradition. Alone among congressional committees, it seems, the Senate Finance Committee follows this bizarre tradition. Tax law, you see, is infinitely more technical and complex than other policy areas. Huh? Anyone looked closely at, say, the cap-and-trade bill? Or any farm, or immigration, bill? Or any piece of significant legislation for that matter? Several Democratic senators touted this practice as superior to what other committees do because few, if any, ordinary American citizens would be able to understand the actual legislative text. Talking points for everyone! Never mind those nettlesome legislative details behind that curtain!
  3. The Chairman argued that CBO will score the actual legislative text before floor consideration and that the committee will reconcile any differences that emerge. But Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas countered, pointing out that some of the significant differences between the concept document and the legislative text are regulatory in nature and will be missed by this reliance on CBO.

The amendment failed 11-12 on nearly a party line vote. Senator Blanche Lincoln (AR) was the sole Democrat to support this attempt at transparency. The bottom line: when the committee completes its work on this re-make of one-sixth of our economy, Senators will have voted on a phantom – a bill that does not exist with costs that are unknowable until, that is, the unelected legislative draftsmen write the real bill in some back room on Capitol Hill.

Right now, the media that is covering every twist and turn of the committee’s “mark up” has ignored this quaint Senate tradition and what it means. Weren’t we taught after all, in our high school civics classes that lawmakers work on laws, not vague concepts? And where is all the analysis of the implications of this tradition on the calls for transparency? And what of the growing demands from citizens that lawmakers read the bill before voting for it? What if there is no bill to read?