Reading is Optional

Most Americans don’t read their stock prospectus.

They don’t comb through the owner’s manual for their dishwasher.

Most bank statements wind up in the trash.

Few people read Facebook’s privacy statement.

But we sure expect Members of Congress to read the bills they’re voting on.

You never know what’s tucked deep into legislation. Perhaps had lawmakers read the bills, they may have discovered the sought-after “God particle” years ago.  Scientists in Switzerland believe they just excavated the legendary Higgs boson particle earlier this week.

But it was then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) who ignited the nation’s ire two years ago as Congress stumbled toward passing health care reform.

“We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it,” said the California Democrat.

Republicans spied an opening. And “read the bills” became their mantra.

Democrats spent the majority of the 111th Congress preoccupied with three major pieces of legislation: the stimulus package designed to jump-start an ailing economy, a climate change bill (known colloquially as “cap and trade”) and health care reform. When it came time to pass those measures, very few lawmakers of either party had digested the thousands of pages of bill text in question.

The stimulus bill clocked in at 1,132 pages. Cap and trade hovered around 1,200 pages. Health care reform swelled to a staggering 2,500.

Democrats bolstered the GOP’s argument overnight by parachuting a 300-page “manager’s amendment” into the cap and trade bill. A manager’s amendment is the final series of tweaks to the legislation before it hits the floor. Lawmakers often use manager’s amendments to sweeten the package for reluctant lawmakers. In effect, manager’s amendments serve as a parliamentary Goldilocks. They make the bill not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

Just before the 2009 cap and trade vote, then-House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) commandeered the floor for more than an hour and read entire chunks of the bill. He excoriated his colleagues.

“The chairman has the audacity to drop a 300-plus page amendment in the hopper at 3:09 am this morning,” Boehner began. “So I would ask my colleagues, don’t you think the American people expect us to understand what is in this bill before we vote on it?”

Boehner reprised his Greek Chorus role in 2010 as House Democrats attempted to muscle through the final version of the Affordable Care Act.

“Have you read the bill? Have you read the reconciliation bill? Have you read the manager’s amendment? Hell no you haven’t!” blasted the Ohio Republican.

Gigantic bills. Little time to read them. Rep. G.T. Thompson (R-PA) suspected there was something fishy going on.

“There’s only one purpose for a thousand page bill,” complained Thompson in 2009. “And that’s to hide stuff.”

These tactics aren’t new – under either Democratic or Republican Congresses. The GOP Congress slid through a 1,500 page, $389 billion grab-bag spending bill in early 2003 with only six hours of review. The Sunlight Foundation asserts the Republican Congress granted lawmakers “0 hours” to review the 240-page Patriot Act prior to its passage in 2001.

Republicans had rammed through all sorts of legislation in the dead of night with scant review when they were in charge. But after the Democrats’ shenanigans, the GOP realized it had a ripe issue and intended to capitalize on it in the 2010 midterm elections.

In the fall of 2010, Republicans published their “Pledge to America.” It was a series of campaign promises where the GOP vowed to run the House differently than the Democrats. One section was simply titled “Read the Bill.” In that chapter, Republicans said they would implement a “three day waiting period on all non-emergency legislation.”

The GOP said that a cooling-off period would “ensure that bills are debated and discussed in the public square by publishing the text online for at least three days before coming up for a vote” and that “legislation should be understood by all interested parties before it is voted on.”

Once they captured the House, the GOP made good on the “read the bill” and “three-day waiting period” promises. They incorporated them into the House’s rules package at the beginning of this Congress.

Kind of.

Republicans may have spelled out their intent in simple, easy-to-understand English in The Pledge to America. But the actual text of the rule the House adopted is significantly more cryptic. It goes like this: “4. (a)(1) Except as specified in subparagraph (2), it shall not be in order to consider in the House a measure or matter reported by a committee until the third calendar day (excluding Saturdays, Sundays, or legal holidays except when the House is in session on such a day) on which each report of a committee on that measure or matter has been available to Members, Delegates, and the Resident Commissioner.”

If your universal translator is set to “Congress-ese” and all you’re picking up is intergalactic space gibberish from Rigel IV, let me interpret: If a bill is posted at 11:59:59 pm on a Monday, the House can vote on it at the stroke of 12:00:01 am on Wednesday. That counts as three days in the Congressional space-time continuum.

But then there’s the human factor.

Posting the text of legislation online in advance doesn’t guarantee that lawmakers will read the bills.

Take the massive transportation bill okayed last week. Funding for the nation’s highway and transit programs would have expired at the end of June had lawmakers not acted. Cemented atop the package was a provision to avert a spike in student loan interest rates in July.

Congress struggled to pass both of these packages for months. So it could certainly be argued that last week’s action was an “emergency” as dictated by the Pledge to America.

The House posted the text of the transportation bill at 4:24 am on Thursday, June 28. The House and Senate both cleared the transportation measure in the early afternoon of Friday, June 29.

Few lawmakers raised any hackles that Congressional leaders zip-tied the student loan measure to the transportation package. But lawmakers also superglued flood insurance provisions to the package as well. That potentially violated another “Pledge to America” tenet where the GOP promised to “Advance Legislative Issues One at a Time.”

In the Pledge, the GOP said it would “end the practice of packaging unpopular bills with ‘must-pass’ legislation,” claiming they would “advance major legislation one issue at a time.”

Granted, it takes two to tango. Democrats control the Senate. The Senate has a “48 hour” rule for bills to lay over before its members vote on them. Secondly, Senate Democrats aren’t bound by the Republican Pledge to America. House Republicans can certainly argue that they periodically have to bend the rules to work with the other institution and run government.

Regardless, the final version of the transportation bill was so loaded up it resembled Redd Foxx’s pickup truck from Sanford and Son pulling out of the salvage yard.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) helped craft the transportation package. He described the final version of the legislation as “one-tenth of a loaf” and “a slice” of what he wanted in the bill. Blumenauer found it ironic that lawmakers from both sides gave the package the green light.

“For all the caterwauling about health care, there’s nobody who’s read this bill,” Blumenauer said.

Across the Capitol Rotunda, freshman Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) championed Blumenauer’s point.

“600 page bill. And I got it this morning. Not one member of the Senate will read this bill before we vote on it,” hissed Paul during a floor speech. “Nobody knows what we’re voting on it. In fact, things have been stuck in this bill last night that have nothing to do with these bills.”

Paul favors a plan that requires a one day waiting period for every 20 pages of bill text.

Don’t you wish you had that option in college? Imagine postponing an exam when the professor assigned textbooks, all several hundred pages thick?

Paul raised a point of order against the Senate’s effort to blow past its own 48-hour rule, but lost 72-22.

Whenever a lawmaker initially introduces a bill, you’ll often hear the reading clerks or members themselves discuss the “first reading.” This is the initial stage of the legislative process. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there were no Xerox machines or websites. Legislation was written with a quill on parchment paper. This guaranteed that measures were significantly shorter. Plus, there was only one copy of a given bill. So to make sure everyone was aware of legislation at hand, bills would go through a series of three “readings.”

A clerk would stand on the dais of both the House or Senate and actually read the bill aloud so everyone in the chamber knew what it was about. That process still exists today although lawmakers almost always waive the oral “reading” of the bill. A senator who truly wishes to bog down the process may object to “dispensing” with reading the bill. This dilatory approach requires reading of an entire bill out loud.

Of course, in the old days, not all members were around when a bill went to “first reading.” Some were dozing at their desks or drunk at the tavern down the block. The acoustics in the old House chamber were so horrid that it’s quite possible few actually discerned what was being read above the din. A handful of members were even illiterate. So hearing a “reading” of the bill was the only way they actually knew what the legislation was about.

That’s one of the reasons there are technically “three readings” of a bill. If you miss the first two, you get the chance to catch up on the second or third. In fact in the Senate, you’ll often hear the floor manager call for a “third reading” of the bill. Once a senator demands a “third reading,” the bill is prepped for a final vote.

But witnessing either body actually “read” a bill out loud is extremely rare. Once “third reading” is ordered in the Senate, a clerk simply utters the title of the bill. The senator who requested the “third reading” immediately asks “unanimous consent” that the clerk cease additional reading. Almost no one ever objects.

Keen Senate observers will sometimes catch an interesting phenomenon at the end of the legislative day. A senator from the majority party may rifle through a series of requests from the floor. Sometimes they’ll ask that a bill “be read three times and passed.” That’s an expedited way to clear non-controversial bills or measures which all members have a agreed to. No actual “reading” takes place. And only a few people in the chamber know precisely what just happened.

In the days prior to the Supreme Court’s health care decision, House Republicans urged their members to carve out time to actually read the opinion. The GOP indicated that many constituents and reporters might ask if they read the decision.

But within minutes of the Supreme Court handing down its opinion, members from both parties flocked to the television cameras to comment.

Undoubtedly, some read the Supreme Court opinion. Many certainly did so in the following days. Granted, reading a Supreme Court decision is not the same as reading a bill. But lawmakers were ready to jump on TV well before they had parsed the opinion.

Reading bills sounds fundamental. Undoubtedly, members of Congress are better about this following the controversy surrounding cap and trade and health care. Congress has archaic institutional structures designed to acquaint lawmakers with the bills before them. And even new guidelines don’t guarantee that lawmakers read the bills either.

It’s like a summer reading assignment which universities hand out to incoming freshmen. Everyone knows they’re supposed to read the book. But only a few do come September.

And with reading the bills, that’s often the case on Capitol Hill.