Once upon a time, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was mad about the process.
“For goodness sakes, this is a 600-page bill. I got it this morning,” Paul said in 2012 as the Senate was considering a hefty bill addressing a number of issues. “Not one member of the Senate will read this bill before we vote on it,” he predicted, which seems fair.
So he introduced a bill: The Senate must be given one day to read each 20 pages of legislation that were brought to the floor for a vote. In other words, that 600-page bill couldn’t be voted on until the Senate had been given 30 days to read it.
Paul’s legislation failed.
On Tuesday, he voted in favor of the Republican tax-reform measure. That bill was made public Friday evening. Per Paul’s standard, the 503-page bill should not have come up for consideration in the Senate until Jan. 9. Instead of being given a day for every 20 pages, the House — which voted first, at about 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday — was given 3.7 hours.
This raises the question first posed by Paul: Could anyone have actually read it? Let’s do the math.
The bill came in two parts. About 500 pages were the bill itself; another 600 pages or so were the conference report which explained what the bill did. Bills, as written, are largely inscrutable, mostly consisting of things like The following sections are each amended by striking ‘‘for ‘calendar year 1992’ in subparagraph (B)’’ and inserting ‘‘for ‘calendar year 2016’ in subparagraph (A) (ii)’ — which is actually in the tax bill. Unless you know what the sections being amended say and do, reading the bill itself won’t tell you much.
Let’s say you have internalized every line of U.S. Code and can read a bill and understand what it’s changing and affecting. According to a tool at niram.org, it would take about six hours to read the 72,000-plus words the bill contains. Not impossible, I guess.
If you are not a robot, though, you would probably need to read the conference report to understand what’s happening. While it’s about the same number of pages as the bill, it’s written in real English and real paragraphs, meaning it actually includes a lot more text. Specifically, it includes more than 232,000 words — so much that it would take about 19.4 hours to read.
You can already see how members of the House committed to reading the whole thing might have been challenged in doing so.
Let’s assume a representative spends six hours a day sleeping. From Friday evening to Tuesday afternoon, she would have spent 24 hours asleep. The window between the bill’s release and the vote was about 93 hours, as noted above, giving her only 69 waking hours in which to read it.
To read the report, then, would require 28 percent of that legislator’s waking time before the vote.
That’s assuming she only reads the report. Were she also to read the bill, it would take 36.8 percent of her time. If she slept more than six hours — say, eight — it would take 41.7 percent of her waking time. Doable. Unlikely.
Of course this assumes she is reading at the speed determined by niram.org’s tool. Back in 2014, the British grocery chain Tesco (!) made a tool allowing you to calculate how quickly you can read. If you read at 300 words a minute, for example, it would only take you 13 hours to read the 232,000-word conference report. Much more feasible.
There are all sorts of ways in which members of Congress might push back on this analysis. Some of the bill was present in prior versions, for example, meaning they could skip big chunks of it. Maybe that let them spend only 10 minutes of every hour reading the thing, as opposed to 17 minutes, per our estimate.
How long did Paul spend reading the conference report before deciding he could support the bill? Zero minutes. He announced his support for the not-yet-existent final version back in November.