Monday, September 28, 2009

Scenes from a bill mark up

Sometime ago we discussed how difficult it can be to comprehend legislative language. This issue came up again, briefly anyway, as the Senate Finance Committee spent several days (and nights) last week wading through the more than 500 amendments filed by various Senators (both Republican and Democrat) to the "Chairman's Mark" (that is, the 200-plus page version of health care reform legislation offered by Chairman Baucus (D-MT)). (Mark-up hearings continue this week.)

Senator Bunning (R-KY) offered an amendment that would have required that the actual legislative language of the bill be completed and posted on the Internet 72 hours before the committee votes on the bill. (The 200-page Chairman's Mark is actually a plain language (or, per the Senators, "conceptual language") summary; no actual legislative language is available yet.)

Bunning and other Republicans supporting the amendment argued that it would promote transparency. The Democrats' response? Such a requirement would slow down the process, legislative language is difficult to understand, and, anyway, committee precedent is on their side--SFC apparently always uses a plain language summary as its basis for committee votes. After a spirited debate, the amendment was voted down, almost on party lines--13 to 10. However, Chairman Baucus agreed that a plain language version of the final bill (plus cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office) would be made available to the public prior to the committee's final vote.

Not surprisingly, the conservative part of the blogosphere had some fun with this one--see here and here for examples. Why not surprising? Well, their side lost. And (ironically) it's an issue that a layperson can understand, unlike many of the issues raised by other amendments on the table (take this one, offered by Sen. Kerry (D-MA): "adjustment to FMAP language to include individuals covered under section 1115 waivers". Only wonks can get worked up about that one (without research, anyway)). Finally, in fairness, there is something odd about the group of people charged with writing the laws being unwilling to grapple with the language of the very statutes they are now trying to change.

So, will this issue matter in the long run? Probably not, though at least one observer thought Senator Snowe (R-ME) was genuinely irritated by the Democrats' position. No doubt the Dems would have preferred to avoid that: Snowe's vote may be very important in the weeks ahead.


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