"I love these members that get up and say, 'Read the bill!' Well, what good is reading the bill if it's a thousand pages and you don't have two days and two lawyers to find out what it means after you've read the bill?" -- Rep. John Conyers, Jr. On reading the 2010 health care reform bill (1)"I don't think you want me to waste my time to read every page of the health care bill. You know why? It's statutory language. We hire experts." -- Sen. Max Baucus On reading the 2010 health care reform bill (2)Congress has gotten into a lot of trouble with the public because members often do not understand the bills they are considering. As the quotes above make clear, even some of the key players did not read the health care reform bill passed in 2010. In the midst of the debate, Speaker Nancy Pelosi seemed to discourage the public from reading it.
Speaking before a group of local government officials, she said: "But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy." (3) Nor is this issue confined to Democrats. When Republicans controlled Congress, they too passed many complicated bills that few members had the time to read or understand.Basic common sense dictates that members cannot make an informed choice about how to vote on bills if they have not read or understood them. But how can we get them to do that? Under the current way of doing business, they do not seem to have any inclination to do so.Congress could lighten its reading load by restricting the number of bills introduced. In the 110th Congress that met in 2007-08, representatives introduced 7,340 bills or about seventeen per member. Senators introduced 3,741 bills, or about thirty-seven per member. (4) Yet, only 460 of those 11,081 bills (about 4 percent) became law, and over a third of those were purely honorary in nature. Drafting and working on all of those bills consumes staff time and other resources. Given these figures, it sounds like Congress could probably make do with fewer introduced bills.Both chambers could limit each member to introducing ten bills per Congress.
Not all members would use their allocation, and they could be allowed to pass them to other members who may want to introduce more than ten bills. A monetary bonus could also be paid for not using the entire allocation. Having this kind of rule would force members to focus on the legislation that they really want to pass. It would also save the resources expended on all the other bills that are now introduced and quickly forgotten. Members could freely use their government web sites to post drafts on which they may want to seek public comment without using up their allocations.Both chambers could also require that bills be drafted in plain English. As this book was being written, Congress enacted the "Plain Writing Act of 2010." (5) It required all executive branch agencies to use plain English in their documents. Sadly, Congress did not apply the same requirement to its documents. If it did, that would lighten the load for members.As the quotes from Representative Conyers and Senator Baucus illustrate, members find current bill language dense and difficult to understand. If bills were drafted in clearer language, perhaps more members would read and understand them. If the bills then became law, the public might understand them better as well. Of the 460 public laws passed during 2007-08, seventeen were technical corrections bills that fixed drafting mistakes in prior laws -- that Congress needed to pass so many of these bills illustrates the problems that complexity introduces.The comments of Representative Conyers, Senator Baucus, and Speaker Pelosi also show that members do not read and understand bills because they are too long. The final version of the health care reform bill ran to over 2,400 pages in bill form. (6) To even contemplate reading through it numbs the mind. Its sheer length belies the notion that any single member actually read it or understood it. Yet bills of extreme length are increasingly common. The financial services reform bill passed in the summer of 2010 ran to more than 1,600 pages in bill form. (7) Republicans were equally guilty of this kind of excess when they ran Congress.Both chambers could limit bills to a reasonable number of pages. One hundred pages seems like a reasonable number. If there were just a flat prohibition on the number of pages in introduced bills, members could game that requirement by adding amendments.
Leaders could address this in a couple of ways. One would be to announce that they will not bring bills to the floor unless the bill, with its amendments, is less than one hundred pages. Another way would be to require separate votes for each one hundred pages. In either case, the point is to bring the proposal down to a digestible size so that members actually make an informed choice when they vote and can be held accountable for their votes.Those requirements will make little difference unless the rules also require an adequate time to read the bills. House Republican leader John Boehner suggested during the 2010 midterm campaign that no bill be brought up until it had been available to members for seventy-two hours. That seems like a reasonable time. If it were enforced, no member could use lack of time as an excuse for not reading the bills.All of these common sense reforms could easily be embodied in rules of the chamber or leadership policies. Getting members to actually read the bills and understand them is another matter entirely. It is not clear how either chamber could realistically enforce such a rule or policy. However, it could be made into campaign fodder. A party could encourage its members to take a campaign pledge to read and understand every bill they vote on. It would be hard for an opponent not to make the same pledge. We would have to rely on the candidates' honor that they are actually doing so. But if they did not, they would certainly face embarrassing questions from the media when they broke it.The changes suggested in this chapter are relatively easy to enact, but they would make a world of difference in how Congress operates. Had they been in effect, it is likely that we would have had a much simpler and easier to understand health care reform bill and that the public would be much happier with the product.Endnotes1. The video of this quote is available on YouTube, "John Conyers on Reading the Healthcare Bill."2. The quote was reported in "Libby Residents Relate Gains, Drawbacks of Asbestos Aid," by Dan Testa, (Kalispell, MT) Flathead Beacon, August 24, 2010.3. Her prepared remarks are available as "Pelosi Remarks at the 2010 Legislative Conference for National Association of Counties," Press Release from the Office of the Speaker of the House, March 9, 2010.4. These figures do not include joint resolutions, concurrent resolutions, or sim- ple resolutions. For more on these types of legislation, see Congressional Deskbook, ???????? 11.20, 11.30. For an explanation of how these numbers were derived, see Appendix A.5. Pub. L. No. 111-274, 124 Stat. 2861 (2010). Prior to the passage of H.R. 946 (2010), efforts to get members of the executive branch to use plain English had gone on for a number of years, but they had been somewhat sporadic. See "A History of Plain Language in the United States Government (2004)," by Joanne Locke, ; President Clinton signed a memorandum encouraging the use of plain English in the executive branch in 1998, "Executive Memorandum of June 1, 1998 -- Plain Language in Government Writing," Federal Register Volume 63, Number 111, FR Doc No: 98-15700.6. Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Pub. L. No. 111-148, 124 Stat. 119 (2010).7. Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, Pub. L. No. 111- 203, 124 Stat. 1376 (2010).