"Read the bill!" -- but slowly

When they were in power, the GOP didn't always allow everyone time to read legislation, but they want it now


Gabriel Winant
October 9, 2009 9:20PM (UTC)

Over the past few months, the new rallying cry on the right, for town-hall protesters and national politicians alike, has become "read the bill!" This summer, Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., caught some major flak for pointing out the obvious to a hostile crowd: Of course elected officials don’t personally read the entirety of every bill they vote on. They have staff who read and write legislation, so that politicians understand it when they go to roll call. Specter’s audience went wild booing.

Picking up on this theme, Republican politicians have taken to demanding a 72-hour reading period before voting. It’s a reasonable idea in principle, but for the GOP, it’s mainly a political club to bash Democrats with, as House Minority Leader John Boehner gave away yesterday on Fox News. Interviewer Greta Van Susteren asked Boehner to reflect on rush votes while his party was in power. “Did you guys resist it at all? I realize that different times, but did you resist it at all?” she asked.

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Replied Boehner, “Well, it was a different time. I can tell you when I was majority leader, at the time, in almost all cases, I insisted that members have at least 24 hours to read a bill before it came to the floor. But that was -- it’s a different time.” He then reiterated his demand for Democrats to leave a comfortable waiting period.

As Ben Armbruster at Think Progress points out, the last GOP majority regularly used the rush-vote tactic, not even (or barely) meeting the 24-hour standard on some of the most major pieces of legislation, including the Military Commissions Act, the Secure Fence Act, the PATRIOT Act, the Medicare prescription drug benefit and President Bush’s second tax cut.

Responding to pressure on the speed-reading issue, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has promised to have healthcare legislation online at least 72 hours before a vote. But for Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., this isn’t enough. This week, Bachmann called the three-day standard “an embarrassment.” Even three months would be “a minimum,”  Democrats' favorite Minnesotan said. Without that much time, how can constituents possibly get informed about healthcare and contact their representatives?

Funny thing about the idea of a “minimum” -- it’s testable. So PolitiFact, the fact-checking website, went and tested it out.

A computer program told us the House bill weighed in at 163,000 words. The average adult, meanwhile, can read passages aloud at an average rate of 154 words per minute, according to a 2003 measurement of basic adult literacy by the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics. At that rate, the average person would need about 18 hours to read the bill aloud. So if you had the three days Pelosi would guarantee, you'd only have to spend six hours per day reading the bill.

And that’s reading aloud. Naturally, reading silently would take much less time -- seven to thirteen hours total, according to PolitiFact. (Though the image of Bachmann burning the midnight oil reading the healthcare bill aloud is a fun one.)

Of course, if you’ve ever actually tried to read an actual piece of legislation on a substantive topic, you’ll know that comprehension for a non-expert is typically about nil. In theory, yes, Bachmann's right, it'd be great for participatory democracy if we all had months to read every bill before our representatives voted on them. But in the real world, the fact of the matter is that even given months, most of us wouldn't understand the language in the bill -- the town hall protesters who claimed to have read the legislation had misinterpreted major provisions -- and the demand for more time is a political stunt, one attempted with the hope that support for the bill would drop during the delay.

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Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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