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Thursday, July 9, 2009

On Reading

The Stage: Mr. Hanna and his conservative movement requests that all representatives promise to read the whole health-care bill personally before they vote on it, and requests that bills be made available to the public three days prior to each vote on the internet. Mr. Hoyer (D-Md.) has been quoted replying that the idea of every representative reading every bill they vote on is patently ridiculous.


My take:

It would be easy to harp and whine that all representatives should read the entirety of all bills they vote on. I myself, in younger years, have whined the same thing, with no less justification. In an ideal world, this would, of course, be ideal.

The problem is, that most people writing these bills are lawyers, and lawyers are not known for keeping it short. Bills often run over a thousand pages. The Patriot act was seven hundred some (I read about a third of it, incidentally, and much like sausage, you really don't want to know what was in it), and health-care is looking to be something closer to twice that.

The record number of votes taken in one day in the House of Representatives presently stands at fifty-three.

Let's be generous and presume that an average bill is somewhere in the vicinity of five hundred pages. I suspect it is somewhat more, particularly if you factor in the pork.* Five hundred pages times (again, to be generous and to simplify) fifty votes is 25,000 pages of legislation you expect your representative to be current on at any given day and time.

Still, that's a record, so let's assume that a more normal voting day is, oh, ten votes. Ten votes times five hundred pages is five thousand pages of reading, every day, plus additional pages to keep current with revisions.

It is, quite frankly, not possible.

Which isn't to say that Mr. Hanna doesn't have a point. The health-care bill is not a standard bill. Most bills that go to the floor on a given day are not points of major contention. They get done big simple obvious things that need to be done. Things like "vote to take the unmaintained, tax-delinquent land between forty-fifth and forty-sixth street under eminent domain and classify it as 'business' land to allow resale to companies intent on improving the property." Or maybe "Bill to provide additional funds to nearby VA hospital which is unable to maintain ceiling lights."

This sort of bill requires only a check-through by staff to make sure that nothing nasty got slipped in. You hand it to your assistant (a friend of mine did this job over the previous summer, incidentally), and say "look through this and make sure none of the pork makes slavery legal or anything like that."

However, the health-care bill (and the Patriot Act) is not a minor piece of pittance legislation. It's a major, important bill that needs to be done right, or not done at all.** I'm inclined to agree with Mr. Hanna, additionally, that bills should be concluded three days prior to voting and put up online for public review. A major change in a bill's structure the day before a vote is a problem, because there is insufficient remaining time for that change to be properly vetted.

In this particular instance, then, I would say that yes, every representative should read every page themselves, so that they know what they're about to do to the country. In all cases I think bills should be available for public review 3 days prior to the vote, or earlier (perhaps have "versions" of the bill online with version-numbers so people can track changes if they want to).

I agree then, with Mr. Hanna in this particular case. However, I also agree with Mr. Hoyer that expecting every representative to read the entirety of every bill they vote on is patently ridiculous.

Neither man is out of line, and they're both right.

-Maxwell Evans

*(Not all pork is bad pork, incidentally, but we'll set that aside as an argument for a day when that statement is more true than false. These days, pork is pretty much always bad. We just don't have enough pigs left to go 'round.)

**(It does, however, need to be done. I'll explain my take on it in a later article.)

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