Thriller Night

The Speaker’s Lobby: Thriller Night

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

02 July 2009

 It was close to midnight last Thursday. And to hear House Republicans tell it, something evil was lurking in the dark.

That “evil lurking in the dark” wasn’t from “Thriller” by Michael Jackson. But last Thursday night, as much of the country and media fixated on the death of the King of Pop, Congress burning the midnight oil, prepping a sweeping energy and climate bill.

To the GOP, and even many House Democrats, that “evil lurking in the dark” was a 300-page “manager’s amendment” that the Democratic leadership duct taped to the already burgeoning legislation. And come Friday morning, few people knew what was in that addendum, even though the House was poised to vote on the bill a few hours later.

Come daybreak, Republicans weren’t singing “Thriller.” They instead spun an oldie, but goodie.

“Washington is broken,” Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL) told the Bradenton (FL) Herald. “And nowhere is this more evident than in the fact that complicated, far-reaching legislation is being brought to the floor that no member could possibly have read ahead of time.”

“I think if most of the people in this House had read this bill and then given a chance to read the additional third that was added at three am or so this morning, then, I don’t think it would have passed,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX).

“I have spent most of the day trying to look at this 309-page bill, trying to come up with and understand what this 309-page amendment to the 1,200 page bill…what does it really do?” asked House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH).

Boehner made a point that few if any lawmakers had read the legislation they were about to vote on. And frankly, even the Ohio Republican hadn’t. As Boehner commandeered the House floor for more than an hour, questioning portions of the manager’s amendment, he read from a binder prepared by staff. Aides culled through the legislation and then attached Post-It notes and tabs to various pages that caught their interest. 

The issue about reading the bills swirls every time a mammoth measure hits the House or Senate floor. Republicans now target Democrats with the criticism. And when the GOP controlled Congress, Democrats did the same to their colleagues across the aisle.

Check out this November, 2004 op-ed from the Washington Post by Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA). That year, the House and Senate voted to allow some committee chairmen the right to explore citizens’ tax returns.

“How did this dangerous provision pass Congress in the first place?” asked Baird. “The answer is simple. Members didn’t have enough time to read the bill.”

Baird later indicated that that package was 2,900 pages long and lawmakers only got 48 hours to sift through it.

But it doesn’t matter. One of the most specious arguments in Congress is that lawmakers shouldn’t vote on legislation until they have combed through every sub-paragraph and footnote. The minority will always deploy the “no one’s read the bill” argument as a platitude for not voting on legislation they don’t agree with. And often, even the lawmakers who complain there hasn’t been enough time to read the measures never comb through the legislation later either.

There are lots of reasons lawmakers don’t read what they vote on. First, a typical day on Capitol Hill churns with such velocity that even the most fit and nimble struggle to keep up. Lawmakers are rushed. Their time is fragmentary. The stark reality is that there just isn’t much time for them to dedicate to reading a bill. What should be a lawmaker’s priority? Sit quietly in his or her office, reading the bill? Or meeting with a group of constituents that’s cooling its heels in the front office? Does the lawmaker forgo getting a crack at Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke or Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner at a hearing? Or does he catch up on his reading? What about blowing off a few interviews scheduled with the media so he can read the legislation? I can see the line in the story now. “Congressman X declined to comment because he was holed up in his office reading the bill.”

See, that’s what staff is for. Each lawmaker employs a team of aides that’s paid to read the bills, interpret amendments and even make recommendations on how the boss should vote. This is a key aspect of the legislative process. And many Congressional observers would wonder if a lawmaker was truly being diligent by just spending his or her time reading the bills and not performing other essential duties.

Still, constituents flood the Capitol Hill switchboard with calls of outrage that “Congress hasn’t read the bill.” I wonder how many of those who dial in have read the bill themselves? Or better yet, did they read their insurance policy? Their retirement policy? Their stock prospectus? The owner’s manual for their car? I know. They were probably busy working two jobs, taking care of a sick aunt and shuttling the kids to soccer practice. They just didn’t have time to shoehorn in the bill. Besides, they were trying to tackle Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” this week. And reading Shakespeare’s “King John” on their lunch break.

Everyone on Capitol Hill knows the question of reading the bill is a touchy subject. For instance, this week I queried the office of Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT) to find out if the Congressman read the bill. I have no idea whether Rehberg truly read it or not. But Rehberg’s spokesman Jed Link knew better than to dip his toe into that cesspool.

“We prefer not to comment,” Link responded in an email.

The flip side of that is the office of Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC). When I asked Inglis spokesman Price Atkinson whether the South Carolina Republican had read the bill, his immediate response was a pithy, declarative, “No, he did not.”

That may be accurate. But it doesn’t reveal the level of familiarity Inglis or any other lawmaker has on the subject. Inglis may not have read the entire energy-climate bill. But he certainly he spent some time crafting an abbreviated plan that would offer rewards for not shipping jobs overseas to countries that pollute.

Of course, no one knows how many people read Inglis’s 15-page bill, either.

Filmmaker Michael Moore may have concocted the best scheme for assuring that lawmakers knew what was in the legislation they voted on. In 2001, Moore hired an ice cream truck to drive around the perimeter of the Capitol. Moore read the 240-page Patriot Act aloud to the Capitol Hill community over the ice cream truck’s loudspeaker system.

What’s ironic is that the House and Senate both have rules that require each body to “read” the legislation before them. Each bill gets a “first reading” when it’s introduced. A “second reading” when it’s debated and a “third reading” right before they vote. These guidelines are particularly relevant in the Senate. In theory, each time a bill goes to either first, second or third reading, a clerk is supposed to actually read the bill out loud in front of the chamber. This stems from a time when printing was scarce and there may have been only one copy of the legislation available. Never mind that some lawmakers were illiterate. An oral reading assured all lawmakers they knew what they were considering.

Can you imagine the imbroglio over this system in say, 1822? I can hear some Congressman thundering on the floor now.

“We’re expected to vote on this bill now and we haven’t had the time to listen to it!”

When they come to the first, second or third reading today, the problem is that senators almost always ask the clerk to stop reading the bill after only a couple of words. They might not even spit out the title of the bill before getting cut off. And even if they did read the bill aloud, few would linger to listen any way.

So Congress will next try to scrape together a major health care reform package. If the Democratic leadership succeeds, you can bet that the GOP will again be in “Thriller” mode. Aides and lawmakers will scramble to finalize the legislation overnight before hauling it to the House and Senate floors. And dubious Members of Congress will again wonder if there’s “evil lurking in the dark” with last-minute alterations to the legislation that few people have even read.

– Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.