Like anyone else, Johnson was more than free to read the bill on his own time rather than forcing the clerks to perform this ritual. But 10 hours and 43 minutes later, they finally staggered to the end of their marathon.
There’s a context for this stunt, which was meant to delay debate on the bill in a particularly exasperating way: Republicans see it in their interest to make the legislative process appear as convoluted and ridiculous as possible.
That’s because an inevitable part of their message for the 2022 midterm elections — as it almost always is — will be that Washington Doesn’t Work. It’s a bunch of squabbling, partisanship and arcane procedural nonsense that does nothing to help you and your family, so what we need to do is toss out the people in charge and put in some folks with common sense, i.e., Republicans.
And the idea that legislation is too long is a regular Republican refrain, as though a bill’s page count proves that there must be something wrong with it.
Let me share a secret with you: Members of Congress don’t read the text of most of the bills they vote on. That’s true of both Republican bills and Democratic bills. But it’s not because they aren’t doing their jobs.
So why don’t they read most bills? The first reason is that there are just too many. In the last Congress, which ran from 2019 to 2021, there were over 20,000 bills introduced, and just under 1,900 that were considered on the floor. And that was not a particularly productive Congress.
So members have to rely on summaries prepared by staff and instructions from their party leadership on whether to vote yea or nay; otherwise the task is just too enormous.
But more importantly, legislative text is so impenetrable that it makes your iTunes terms and conditions look like “Hop on Pop.” It’s full of convoluted lines like “subsection (a)(1) of such section 314 shall be applied by substituting ‘91 percent’ for ‘89 percent’” and “without regard to requirements in sections 658E(c)(3)(E) or 658G of such Act (42 U.S.C. 9858c(c)(3), 9858e).”
Those are actual excerpts from the covid relief bill. They show why Congress has staffers who have expertise in writing and interpreting legislation.
But Johnson hopes that when you encounter that, you say, “What a bunch of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo. Folks in Washington don’t care a lick about me.” Instead, of course, you could say, “Writing laws is incredibly complicated. I sure want to have skilled and knowledgeable people doing it.”
The advantage Republicans have is that even when they’re in charge, they don’t really have to care about whether government appears competent. Their own failures and inefficiencies can be taken as yet more proof that their fundamental argument that government can’t do anything right is correct.
Democrats, on the other hand, have an extra obligation to make sure that they carry out their programs effectively, since they’re the ones always arguing for more comprehensive and aggressive government action. That’s why missteps are particularly devastating; a prototypical example was the chaotic rollout of the portal for the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges. While eventually they worked out the kinks, it became a PR nightmare, making the entire bill look like a disaster.
This will be one of the most important grounds on which politics is fought for the next few years. Republicans will argue that under Democrats the legislative process is a mess, their bills are full of frivolous and wasteful boondoggles, and the Biden administration is mishandling implementation of everything. Democrats have to prove them wrong.
How can they do that? For a start, they have to pass their bills through Congress. And yes, that means eliminating or at least reforming the filibuster. Republicans will gleefully kill every bill Democrats offer, then turn around and tell voters that Democrats can’t get anything done.
Second, they have to emphasize — over and over — that what’s impeding progress isn’t “Washington” or “Congress” or “partisan politics” — it’s Republicans. There’s plenty of opportunity for Republicans to air substantive objections to Democratic policies, but if voters don’t like inaction, that’s where blame should lie.
And finally, when they do pass bills, Democrats have to take credit, loudly and emphatically and repeatedly. People won’t just figure out that the federal government did something to improve their lives; they have to be persuaded. Especially since the opposition will be working hard to convince them that nothing coming out of Washington ever helped them at all.
So yes, bills are mind-numbingly long, the legislative process is frustrating, and governing is complicated. But if you do it right, what comes out the other end can do extraordinary good in people’s lives. You just have to make sure they know it.