Let IT bring legislation to light

The legislative process frequently has been likened to the messy process of making sausage. But rarely has Congress subjected federal agencies to the slap-dash treatment that gave rise to this year's gargantuan $520 billion omnibus spending bill.

Congress frequently finds itself pushed by the end of the fiscal year to pass numerous spending measures. The 105th Congress should be commended for striking a deal with the Clinton administration to avoid a disruptive government shutdown. And agencies received a much-needed $3.4 billion in funding to fix the Year 2000 problem.

But the process that gave rise to this spending bill was even more chaotic than usual. Members of Congress took to the floor and to the media to complain about being forced to vote on a bill that they did not get to see, let alone have time to study.

Lobbying groups still are sifting through the 4,000-page bill to find what it contains. The whole rigamarole would be comical if it were not for the possibility of unintended consequences wrought by the changes.

The process also is totally unnecessary. At the risk of stating the obvious, information technology— in the form of groupware— exists that would enable members of Congress to see what is in legislation that is under consideration. They could see changes and search electronically for pet projects.

It is one thing to ban notebooks from the Senate floor, but it is quite another to turn away from technology that so dramatically improves the process. In short, we believe this is no way to fund or run a government. We can only urge the 106th Congress to avoid such lawmaking. The next Congress would do well to heed the advice of the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who said, "Sunshine is the best disinfectant."

The fiscal 1999 omnibus spending bill certainly was concocted in the dark, and we do not yet know what ills will emerge from such a beginning.

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