It’s been nearly two months since that election and, after passing the House, the $1.9 trillion bill is awaiting a vote in the Senate. But that won’t happen for a while yet, not because there aren’t the votes to pass it but, instead, because Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) decided to force the chamber to read the 628-page bill in its entirety. The effect isn’t to change the outcome. Instead, it’s to delay the inevitable.
Normally, the Senate or House dispenses with the required reading of legislation. For those looking to throw up any possible roadblock to a bill’s passage, though, forcing the bill to be read (which can be done at the request of any member) is an effective tool.
Sometimes, the assembly is ready for such a demand. In 2009, former Texas representative Joe Barton (R) asked for a bill to be read by a House committee — because a speed-reader was present to do so.
It’s meant to be a nuisance. But, as CNN’s Brian Fung pointed out on Twitter, it carries an additional weight this time. Included in the funding bill is financial support for millions of Americans, as well as billions of dollars meant to bolster vaccine distribution and testing — tools which could bring the pandemic to an end more quickly.
At this moment, on this issue, time can be measured in human lives. On average, nearly 2,000 people a day are dying from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. That’s a death about once every 44 seconds. It’s an improvement over the end of January, when people were dying at a rate faster than two a minute. But it’s still a far faster rate than the country had seen for much of the pandemic.
CBS’s Frank Thorp reported that the reading of the bill (by a non-speed reader) began at about 3:22 p.m. By 4:01 p.m., the reader had gotten to only page 40, a rate of 37 pages an hour. The bill is 628 pages long so, if the text of the bill were consistently dense throughout, it would have taken about 17 hours to read it in its entirety. Reading would end at about 8 a.m. on Friday.
As it turned out, the readers picked up the pace. The reading of the bill completed after 10 hours, 44 minutes. Given the current rate at which people are dying of covid-19, that means that about 880 Americans likely succumbed to the disease during that period.
It’s not the case that those lives would have been saved had the bill passed sooner. But it is the case that more immediate assistance for things like vaccines or bolstering people’s bank accounts is better than slower relief. Again, the question isn’t if the bill passes, it’s when. In that context, the argument for an 11-hour delay isn’t a robust one.
Johnson could have ended the reading whenever he wishes, though he’s also indicated that he plans to introduce numerous amendments in an effort to obstruct its passage. His opposition derives from the amount of money involved, a point he reinforced during a speech on Wednesday evening by noting that a stack of 1.9 trillion one-dollar bills would reach well into space.
Those 880 dead bodies also occupy a lot of space.
The final numbers are in.
We've updated this article to reflect the final duration of the bill-reading.