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Don't Read The Bill!


The first amendment considered in the Senate Finance Committee's mark-up was Sen. Jim Bunning’s demand that the bill be converted into legislative language and the CBO take two to three weeks to render a full score before there's a vote.

That's not how the Finance Committee works, and it's not how it's ever worked: The bill is written in plain English so the legislators can actually grasp its provisions, and CBO scores that version. After passage, the bill is rewritten in legalese, and lawyers go back to make sure there are no discrepancies between the "plain English" and the legislative language. If there are, the legal language is rewritten to reflect the English.

This worked for the Committee's Republicans when they chaired it, and it worked for the Democrats when they chaired it, and it pretty much worked for everyone until Bunning realized that changing it could delay health-care reform by three weeks. That engendered the following exchange, which Suzy Khimm faithfully transcribed.

Rising to defend plain English bills was Kent Conrad. "We write our bills in plain English so the members can understand them, and so the public can understand them. …To most people, legislative language is gobbledy-gook." Conrad then proceeded to give an example of exactly what such "goobledy-gook" would sound like. Speaking in a droning, robotic monotone, Conrad read off the section of the bill that discussed how a certain "section K-1" would be "determined under Paragraph Two for the area of the month, IV," with the "applicable amount as defined in the subsection K1 for the area for the year … for the area for the month in 2013 so determined by national per capita growth area."

Conrad's legalese drew some giggles and guffaws from the crowd. This prompted Bunning to try and brandish his wonkish cred by trying to translate the legalese back into plain English. "You're talking about home [health care] providers in metropolitan services areas that include parts of CMS," Bunning responded.

Actually -- not so much.

"The Senator thought the language had to do with home health -- it had to do with Medicare Advantage," Conrad responded triumphantly. "Members of this own committee thought -- they don't know what the legal language is about."

This is why it's silly to demand that members of Congress "read the bill." They can't understand the bill. Nor, incidentally, can the public. What they can understand is plain English, and they should be given a version written in that language to read. Bunning's amendment would have moved the committee in exactly the wrong direction: away from informed legislators, and towards total dependence on staff. What we need is the reverse of Bunning's amendment: a rule directing all committees to adopt the Finance Committee's procedure.

Photo credit: By Harry Hamburg —Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  September 25, 2009; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  Congress , Senate  
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Why not cut out the middle-man, and have Congress just legislate in plain English? It works for the French.

Posted by: albamus | September 25, 2009 9:36 PM | Report abuse

Yes, plain English is important. But it is not what CBO scores. They score the actual bill language.

Posted by: PEHodges | September 25, 2009 10:37 PM | Report abuse

Your column is useful in helping citizens understand how the Senate Finance Committee has worked for decades under both Republican and Democratic control. Also, it's worth noting that Sen. Bunning never fought for legislative transparency when his party was running the Senate and House.

Nonetheless, you don't really seem to understand the trans-partisan legislative transparency movement that is accelerating. The biggest concern is about making bills (and conference reports) available to the public for a minimum period. Do you believe there's no problem with the way Congress currently operates under both parties with regard to legislative transparency?

The headline of your blog post (which I assume you wrote), and your post's categorical, unqualified nature, could easily be interpreted indicate that you see no value to anyone but a few committee staff reading ANY bill in Congress.

I beg of you: Could you please take a few minutes and clarify your view on this important aspect of congressional process? If you do not do so, then I will take your blog post and headline as written.

I helped develop the read the bill concept in 2006, and helped Rep. Brian Baird write his resolution to require that bills and conference reports (including any health bills that go to the floor) be posted online for 72 hours so that the public (and the media, and independent experts, and rival lobbyists, and congressional staff, and state officials, etc.) can read them before floor debate.

Does the Washington Post believe that's a "silly" idea?

Thank you very much for clarifying your views promptly on this important matter.

Rafael DeGennaro
Citizen Century Institute

Posted by: Rafael_DeGennaro | September 27, 2009 8:27 PM | Report abuse

Update on my previous comment:
I realize that you favor less dependence on a handful of staff. But why should your "plain English" reform be mutually exclusive with the "read the bill" reform? Why is your headline "Don't Read the Bill"?

Posted by: Rafael_DeGennaro | September 27, 2009 8:45 PM | Report abuse

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