Takeaway #1 from Congressman Langevin’s Town Hall: The Point of Failure in American Democracy

The first takeaway from Congressman James Langevin’s town hall meeting last evening (actually, it was a city hall meeting, but why quibble) is bigger than the issue of healthcare alone. It concerns one of the weakest points in the American democratic system, the committee system used for creating legislation.
When asked if he had read the “current” healthcare bill, Congressman Langevin responded by saying that there was no final bill yet, but that there would be “a finished bill that we will all have plenty of time to read”. There’s no reason to question the Congressman’s sincerity on this issue — but remember, President Obama originally wanted a healthcare bill passed by both chambers of Congress before the beginning of the August recess. On that schedule, there would have been no time for either Congressmen or their constituents to substantively review a 1,000-page bill filled with technical language and cross-references, after committee work had been completed.
I submit that a significant reason that the town halls of 2009 have become as contentious they have is because citizens have a legitimate fear of a process that could finish with their waking up one morning, reading their local political blog (or maybe their newspaper or something) and finding out that a final or near-final healthcare bill was passed out of committee yesterday, that it will be up for a floor vote by the end of the week, and that their chance to impact or prevent or improve a major change in the government’s role in their lives has passed.
The American people and their elected representatives — at both the state and Federal levels of government — need to come to a clearer mutual understanding about a standard, consistent place in the legislative process when the public has its opportunity to offer meaningful input on legislation.
Maybe an official public comment period on proposed legislation, just like there are official comment periods on executive-branch regulations, needs to be created. Or maybe we need a new rule that says for every 100-pages that a bill spans, 1 week has to be allowed to pass between its approval by a committee and consideration on the floor (minimum allowed period of two weeks).

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