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Charles Kolb Headshot

Next Time, Read the Bill!

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Some Congressional Democrats appear to be distancing themselves from the structurally complex Obama health care legislation. With the 2014 midterm elections approaching, a form of buyer's remorse might be kicking in. The Affordable Care Act passed the House and Senate with no Republican votes and, in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid had to invoke a procedural maneuver to avoid a filibuster.

In retrospect, many Democrats who voted for Obamacare may be thinking to themselves: be careful what you wish for. But it was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who offered the most telling statement on the eve of the law's passage: "We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of controversy."

Is that how Congress really operates? Vote first, think later? If the now Minority Leader was even the least bit serious, her casual remark suggests only minimal competence and focus among our elected representatives.

The Affordable Care Act significantly changed the operation of almost 17 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, and we discover that those who voted for the bill may not have taken the time to read it or understand it?

Is it really asking too much for our elected representatives -- in both parties, as Republicans have done the same thing -- to take the time to read and understand the laws on which they vote? After all, a few years ago, Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley law which mandates that corporate CEOs and CFOs must certify that they have personally read and stand behind the figures in their public quarterly earnings reports. Stiff sanctions apply to corporate leaders who make mistakes under Sarbanes-Oxley.

Why should Congress be held to a lesser standard? If members of Congress -- before they voted -- had to certify that they had read and understood what they were voting on, then perhaps legislation might be shorter and more clearly written. Moreover, there might be fewer instances of legislative "surprises" -- those provisions slipped into the text by staff (usually at the behest of a campaign contributor or PAC-donating lobbyist) allegedly unbeknownst to their bosses. The 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that regulated the entire banking industry was a mere 35 pages. The 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was a hefty 2,300 pages.

Last year fewer than 60 bills emerged from Congress. (Some people might find this number too high.) What else are members doing with their time? Stupid me: dumb question! They are too busy raising money for their next political campaign. Or, if you follow the bipartisan examples cited in Peter Schweizer's excellent book, Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes, and Line Their Own Pockets, it becomes vividly clear that crafting sound legislation is merely an afterthought. The legislative process is being adroitly manipulated in a manner that enables both parties to maximize the campaign contributions they can extort from the American public.

Politicians claim they do not like having to raise money, as it distracts them from the job they are elected to do: legislate. These same politicians should embrace campaign finance reforms that, if enacted, would enable them to be full-time legislators and not fundraisers. This might be one reform proposal they might even take the time to read -- unless, as Schweizer suggests, they really have grown to like a fundraising system that can now be manipulated to benefit them personally.

Charles Kolb, is President of the French-American Foundation -- United States in New York City. He served in the first Bush White House from 1990-1992 as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and at the U.S. Department of Education from 1986-1990. From 1997 until 2012 he was President of the Committee for Economic Development, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The views in this article are solely the author's.