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Enacting legislation

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From Albany to Washington, lawmakers are sidelining the public in the legislative process.

On Monday, the U.S. Senate began debate on the Marketplace Fairness Act that could require Internet retailers to collect sales taxes from online shoppers. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Senate moved quickly after Majority Leader Harry Reid resorted to a procedural tactic to bypass committee consideration.

Following the customary procedures probably would have meant hearings on the bill, which would have allowed more time for groups on both sides of the issue to mobilze supporters and possibly stall the bill. Senators apparently didn’t want that to happen.

Highlighting the significance of the bill, the Journal noted editorially that it “would fundamentally change interstate commerce,” but the text of the bill “only became available on the Library of Congress website over the weekend. And you thought Obamacare was jammed through Nancy Pelosi’s Democratic House in a hurry.”

Opponents see the measure as a new tax and mandate that could impose costly and cumbersome burdens on smaller online businesses and mom-and-pop operations that will have to collect sales taxes across 9,600 taxing jurisdictions. It would put them at a disadvantage with the major national retailers with greater technical and financial capability for dealing with the complexities of the law.

The Senate could pass the bill this week, but it would still have to make it through the House.

In Albany, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has drawn criticism for remarks suggesting that secrecy was preferable to an open process that can slow down and get in the way of legislation.

“Normally, when we release bill language before an agreement, the probability of that bill passing is very, very low,” he said, adding that letting people know what’s in a bill before an agreement “polarizes the process” and “makes it harder to come to agreement because you push people into their respective corners.”

That describes the secretive process that culminated in passage of the state’s strict gun control law that has sparked public demonstrations and local government resolutions opposing the law passed by the Senate in the dead of night and the Assembly with minimal debate. But haste made for confusing language that only came to light after the law was approved and had to be corrected.

The governor said later that he was jokingly trying to make the point that “some bills ... are just posturing.” A skeptical Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College, found that hard to believe: “It’s too much of a truth for him to be joking.”

However, the closed-door negotiations open the legislative process to backroom deals and horse trading by legislators. It can hide the influence of special interests groups with well-paid lobbyists while limiting public awareness and participation in the democratic process.

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