Reading the Bill is a Waste of Time

readBruce Bartlett articulates something that I’ve been wanting to write about for a while about the “read the bill” nonsense, and since he did a better job of it than I would have, I’ll just direct you to him:

The 1,990-page length of the health reform bill is once again bringing forth demands that members of Congress be required to read the legislation before voting on it. While a seemingly reasonable demand, it is, in fact, a waste of time.

The reason becomes obvious the moment one actually reads legislative language.


For these reasons, reading an actual bill is a completely useless exercise for the vast majority of members of Congress and staff. They rely heavily on committee reports that are supposed to accompany all bills coming up for a floor vote. These reports are written by committee staff and are required to faithfully reflect the bill’s intent. They may contain important details, clarifications, data, citations to hearings, and supporting materials, such as a section-by-section analysis, that allow the legislation to be intelligible to non-lawyers and other non-experts.

In addition, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have organizations that review all bills coming up for a vote, summarize them and offer political perspectives. Here, for example, is the House Republican Conference report on the health bill. If one’s party holds the White House, a member may find the Statement of Administration Policy to be important in understanding a bill and how to vote on it. Here is the SAP on the health bill. The Congressional Budget Office’s analysis may also be important. Here is its report on the health bill.

Read the whole thing, which is quite illuminating. The bottom line is that the language of a bill is generally technical and may have impacts on various pieces of existing law. If you’re a member of Congress who is not on the appropriate committee or not involved in drafting the legislation, it’s not necessary to read it. The legal language is there to ensure that particular policies get enacted. The important thing is that the members understand the policy, not the technical legal language.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Political Theory, US Politics, , ,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. I’m not completely unsympathetic to the argument, except for three things:

    1. The Congressional Representative is still responsible for his or her actions in voting for or against something. Do you so casually excuse CEOs from mistakes made by their subordinates? Wouldn’t it be nice if the reach of Sarbanes-Oxley was applied to Congress?

    2. A bill this large and complex is an absolute sewer filled with dozens, if not hundreds of fetid little additions and last minute revisions that summaries cannot possibly completely categorize. Considering how this bill has been so hastily modified in so many areas right up to the end gives the lie to the careful analysis argument presented. The Devil is in the details and a bill like this gives him plenty of places to do mischief with all sorts of unintended, as well as intended, consequences.

    3. Don’t you think the public would be better served by more easily digestible, incremental approaches to such significant legislation? It is very, very hard for someone like me to not see the process as utterly out of control and being abused to sneak a lot of things through that the leadership frankly doesn’t want to see the light of day. All those lies about transparency sure do ring kind of hollow right now. Why is that?

    But really, do you have any idea how it sounds to Joe and Betty Six-Pack to hear that of course, a Congressperson doesn’t have to read what he votes on? And, of course, that said Congressperson is excluded from having to comply as well?

  2. James Joyner says:

    The important thing is that the members understand the policy, not the technical legal language.

    Absolutely. But I’m pretty sure the vast majority don’t understand that, either. The problem is that bills are complicated, not just with technical language, but because they contain hundreds of riders dealing with tangentially related or totally unrelated matters. Many of which are added at the last minute as part of logrolling. So staff reports won’t necessarily help.

    Rather than require “reading” the bill — totally unenforceable, anyway — I’d require a 3 day cooling off period during which the bill language is frozen and the staffs can go through to see what they’re voting on.

  3. just me says:

    I agree with James on this one.

    But I also find it irritating that so many congress members use the “well I voted for it, but didn’t know that was in there” excuse, when some chicken comes home to roost once a bill is implemented.

    One reason I also agree with Charles. I would much rather see smaller, incremental type bills, rather than some huge, sweeping bill that is more likely to end up with unintended consequences.

  4. Franklin says:

    Rather than require “reading” the bill — totally unenforceable, anyway — I’d require a 3 day cooling off period during which the bill language is frozen and the staffs can go through to see what they’re voting on.

    Sounds similar to Obama’s broken campaign promise of a 5-day wait period before signing it into law, just applied to Congress. It was a good idea …

  5. Mark says:

    Rather than require “reading” the bill — totally unenforceable, anyway — I’d require a 3 day cooling off period during which the bill language is frozen and the staffs can go through to see what they’re voting on.

    I’m not unsympathetic, James, but at the end of the day, the House is the House. If they want to pass a rule that the vote occurs in six minutes, and they have the majority to do so, then that’s the rule. Requirements be damned.

    The Senate can cool things off with one member objecting. That’s requirement enough for me and the beauty (or curse?) of the bicameral system.

  6. Drew says:

    I’ve never been struck with the notion that the “read the bill” advocates are taking the literal stance you suggest. Rather, they are more aligned with the last two sentences of your post.

    It seems to me that James’ cooling off period suggestion is completely reasonable, and one can only surmise it is not already standard practice for intentionally mischievous reasons.

    Further, Charles is correct to note that the devil is in the details. For example, from LibertyWorks, concerning the assertion that people can keep their existing insurance –

    “But on page 91 of PelosiCare that passed the House on Saturday, under the heading “Protecting the Choice to Keep Current Coverage,” ………..Individual coverage in force before first day of year one of the new health care regime can continue as long as:

    – the company does not enroll any new customers
    – the company makes no changes any terms or conditions of the policy

    As anyone who buys health insurance knows companies all make minor changes annually, on the anniversary of the policy. If the company can make no changes to keep the policy current with technology and new medical treatments and services, it will have no option but to stop selling that policy. If the company can’t market the policy to new customers it is likely to abandon it. Expect all individual policies to disappear within three years.”

    Is this interpretation correct, and the language is a ticking booby trap to circumvent the “you can keep your existing policy in place” assertion?

    Who knows? How many people have read or vetted it? Think of a whole number less than 1.

  7. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    I wonder if the founders intended for congress to write legislation citizens had no chance of understanding. If you are willing to take the sellers word on the condition of the product and the value as it pertains to cost. In real life you would be a sucker. Representative democracies do not conduct business that the people they represent cannot understand. I do not want to hear rational as to why they do not do their jobs. Too complicated? Make it simpler

  8. PD Shaw says:

    The Founders understood that many members of Congress could not read, so the bills were read on multiple occasions.

    Congress has a legitimacy problem here. It wants to appear to be the smartest people in the room, masters of all they survey, able to heal the sick and save middle class aspirations. It’s embarrassing to publicize that they they are only capable of reading one-page summaries of legislation pressed into their hands in the hallways by lobbyist with certified checks. That as lawyers go, most couldn’t draft a will.

    And the kicker is they express shock when the laws they take credit for turn out bad.

  9. markm says:

    The important thing is that the members understand the policy, not the technical legal language.

    I noticed Chuck Schumer was hell bent on fixing something he didn’t understand in the Stim bill. It was apparently passed to create jobs here in the U.S.. When he noticed that Stim money was being used for a wind/solar farm project in Texas and that the vast majority of jobs created were overseas it was then he sought corrective action.

    In 2,000+ pages, i’m sure there is plenty of that. Why not take the time to comprehend it and eliminate those errors prior to passing the bill?. It’s not like we are in a rush…what with the bill not taking affect until 2013/2014 ish.

  10. markm says:

    And to further that, I see there are various news organizations writing articles on what is defined as a job “saved” versus reality. I know there was a rush to pass that bill and cap unemployment at 8% but it would at least look better to get those pesky details hammered out pre-vote.

    I think it comes down to the perception of accountability. If your rep. didn’t read it and the bill falls flat on it’s face you want to know which where to go with your pitchfork.

  11. Steve Plunk says:

    A hundred one percent solutions instead of a massive 2000 page bill that no one can honestly say they understand completely. Why do the Dems seek this giant single overhaul bill? It’s not to reform health care as much as take over health care. Small steps would not allow a take over.

    The unintended consequences, built in contradictions, and overall bureaucratic legalese lurking in this bill should frighten us all. Others have made very good points about why this is a bad bill and bad legislating so why doesn’t the GOP point that out and use it to kill the bill? The fine print in this thing should be reason enough to stop it.

  12. JKB says:

    You vote for it, you’re responsible for it. Don’t have time to read it, you’re still responsible. Sell your vote for a bridge to nowhere, you’re still responsible.

    All this read the bill push is simply that a catchy way to wrap responsibility around their ankles. Some fool congressman or senator wants a pass because they didn’t know some provision was in there. That is how we got here and the solution is responsibility for their actions and accountability for doing their job. Job too complex, well slow things down or simplify them. Or you know put in a days work.

  13. Michael says:

    I come from a software development background, and from that perspective a bill is like a patch to the US Legal Code. As such, legislators not reading the bill makes perfect sense to me, just as change control boards in corporations don’t read patches.

    The person writing the patch tells them what effect their patch will have, and the board either approves or disapproves of the change based on that report. Similarly, the committees drafting legislation tell the main body what effect their bill will have, and the body approves or disapproves of implementing that effect.

    It seems to me that what we need to complete the analogy is some kind of testing environment, were new legislation can be tested to see if it actually has the effect claimed by the author, and also whether it has negative effects on the rest of the system. Congress needs Beta testers!

  14. hcantrall says:

    Michael has a fantastic idea – Now we just need a parallel universe for those beta testers to try it out. Or a video game…

  15. Michael, well, we used to have a development environment with 50 little testbeds, but all that seems to have gone by the wayside with the decline of federalism and limited government.

    Moreso than beta tests, I’d like to see regression tests to verify that the new fix didn’t break something else before implementing it.

  16. just me says:

    I could go for a regression test.

    This is one reason I think all bills should come with a sunset provision.

  17. Dave Schuler says:

    What is the mechanism by which a legislator could arrive at an understanding of the policy being implemented in a bill without reading the bill? At most he or she would be taking the word of his or her informant, whose own understanding of the bill would be in question.

    It seems to me that the most that could be accomplished would be to understand what the bill was intended to accomplish as opposed to what it actually accomplished.

    What puzzles me about the whole subject is why there isn’t some sort of informed consent notion involved. It seems to me that if fewer than a majority of the legislators actually understand the legislation they’re enacting into law that’s sufficient grounds to overturn the law.

  18. Dave Schuler says:

    To expand on my comment above, let’s consider two examples.

    1. I have a book. What does the book say? No fair peaking!

    2. Okay, let’s say the book is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. What is the theme of the book? I’d guess you’ll get nearly as many answers as there are readers.

  19. Dodd says:

    Reading the Bill is a Waste of Time

    You say that like keeping a Congresscritter occupied — and, thus, preventing him/her from doing even more — is a bad thing.

  20. steve says:

    Dave- How does your computer work? You shouldnt be allowed to use it unless you can explain and understand it down to the quark level. Or not.


  21. Steve, that analogy doesn’t work on any level.

  22. An Interested Party says:

    Yet another health care reform myth exposed

  23. Dave Schuler says:

    Let’s follow your analogy, steve. You’re saying that not only do they not need to know the internals workings of the computer and its programming but they shouldn’t RTFM (read the manual)? That they should just ask their seven year old how to turn it on and use it? Is their seven year old a reliable well-informed informant?

    My view is that 1) Congressmen should read and understand what they vote for; 2) if they can’t read and understand it they shouldn’t be Congressmen; 3) bills should have short sunsets or be nonamendable as a matter of practice; 4) if it’s impossible to make bills understandable even by those voting on them they should change things so they are understandable.

  24. Read the whole thing, which is quite illuminating.

    Just curious Alex, but was that something of a Freudian slip?

  25. just me says:

    Yet another health care reform myth exposed…

    I don’t think it is exposed as you want it to be, and the link itself admits that failure to buy insurance can get you to jail, if you decide not to pay the tax levied for that failure.

    Right now I don’t have to worry about any tax on my failure to purchase anything. I am only required to pay a tax on income or the things I buy (if I lived in a state with a sales tax) or on my things I own (and the government hasn’t required me to buy any of those things).

    But if I choose to not buy the governments definition of what makes good insurance, I get taxed. If I still don’t want to pay for the insurance, and feel the tax is unfair or wrong, then I very well could be subject to fines and jail.

    Not so much a myth, it’s just that jail comes after failure to pay taxes, rather than for failure to buy insurance.

    I could go for a law that says jail can’t be imposed for a failure to pay this tax, then I will buy the idea that it is a complete myth that I could go to jail if I don’t buy insurance.

  26. Grewgills says:

    That they should just ask their seven year old how to turn it on and use it? Is their seven year old a reliable well-informed informant?

    My view is that 1) Congressmen should read and understand what they vote for; 2) if they can’t read and understand it they shouldn’t be Congressmen

    How many would that leave us with? Could we count them on our fingers, or would be need to use or toes as well?

  27. fred says:

    As a “Brit” visiting Panama City I am particularly interested in the debate about your government’s healthcare plans, and if some of your readers may not be familiar with our UK National Health Scheme perhaps I can give you some idea of how it works, based on my own recent experiences:
    1 Some five years ago I collapsed at home and had to be admitted to hospital suffering with an internal bleed. I stayed in hospital for nine days, on a drip and having a blood transfusion, until an exploratory operation cured this diverticular problem, and out I came — all this being free of charge (FOC).
    2 I am now called back to that hospital annually to undergo an exploratory check to ensure that all is well and that there is no sign of tumors — again, FOC.
    3 Three years ago I was diagnosed with high blood pressure during a routine visit to my doctor; I now take a daily tablet to ensure I’m OK and visit him every six months for blood tests, a blood pressure check and to renew my prescription for tablets — again, FOC (although if I were under 60 years old this prescription would cost me about $10 per month and really make me grumble!).
    4 I can normally get an appointment to see my regular doctor within a week or so; if I have an emergency, I can be seen the same day by either him or one of his colleagues in the practice — FOC. My records are on computer and can be called up by any of the doctors.
    The income tax and National Insurance contributions that I’ve made during my working life go towards, among other things, maintaining our National Health Service, and I can look back and think what wonderful foresight our post-war government had — against many odds — to set up this service; and by the way — I’m not one of your dreaded socialists! Not only do I personally have good cause to feel grateful for this system, but I also recognize what a boon it is for everyone, in particular for those — and there are many — who are unable to afford healthcare. I think it is the mark of a civilized society when government sees it as a duty to provide all its citizens with a degree of free healthcare. I realize that our two systems have developed in different ways, and that there is strong opposition to changing yours. Ours is by no means perfect, but we have much to be thankful for!

    Pete Fenn

  28. See, anecdotes are proof!

  29. G.A.Phillips says:

    I don’t how to build a liberal but I can tell you how stupid it is:)

  30. G.A.Phillips says:

    Err, I meant to say know , crap.