Should Legislators Pledge to Read Every Word of Ever Bill They Vote On?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

POLITICIANS are asked to make all sorts of unwise promises. The latest: A group of well-meaning professional activists -- and, so far, over nearly 60,000 online petitioners -- want members of Congress to sign a pledge never to vote on any bill unless they have read "every word" of it.

They have a point. But their proposal would bring government to a standstill.

The average college graduate reads about 300 words per minute. Assume that there are about 150 words per page of legislative text, a number we derived from counting the words on a few randomly chosen pages from the Waxman-Markey energy bill. To read all 1,427 pages of Waxman-Markey, it would take at least 12 hours -- tough on a tight legislative timeline. And that assumes that lawmakers can read complex bills at the same pace they do a John Grisham novel (we tried -- it's not even close).

Still doesn't sound too daunting? Consider that in the 110th Congress, the House of Representatives dealt with 7,441 bills and joint resolutions. Not all were as long as Waxman-Markey is -- the average length of laws that the 110th Congress passed was 16.7 pages. Assuming that passed bills were roughly the same size as those that didn't pass, House members would have had to read about 125,000 pages in the last session to get through every bill proposed. And that doesn't even count the 1,978 House concurrent resolutions and House simple resolutions, nor any of the amendments or the different versions of individual bills lawmakers must consider.

True, not every bill comes to a vote. But we also want to see legislators meeting to hammer out legislation, drafting amendments, interacting with constituents, leading hearings -- which, by the way, help to educate the public as well as Congress -- not shuttered for half of every workday just to read through "every word" of every bill that might come to a vote. At some point, it's fine for members of Congress to rely on expert staff members.

Still, the ReadtoVote campaign hits on some reasonable sources of discomfort with the way Congress operates. Some on the left are furious about politicians distorting bills' contents -- accusations of death panels in the health-care bill, for example. Unfortunately, distortion will probably happen regardless of how many pages lawmakers read.

Another is that leaders rush huge bills to a vote before lawmakers can review them. It's a problem about which the minority party inevitably complains. But in the current climate, it also unnecessarily feeds a divisive narrative on the right about how President Obama and his allies in Congress are forcing radical policy on an unwitting public. Narrative or no, it's reasonable to expect adequate time to consider bills' final language.

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