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Read Before You Vote, Congressman

By Eva Rodriguez

My jaw dropped when I first heard this snippet from Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). Speaking at a National Press Club luncheon last week, Conyers ridiculed the idea that lawmakers should read bills before they vote on them. This is especially true, he suggested, when it comes to lengthy bills, such as the health-care reform measures now being contemplated on Capitol Hill. “I love these members that get up and say, 'Read the bill,'" Conyers said. "What good is reading the bill if it’s a thousand pages and you don’t have two days and two lawyers to find out what it means after you read the bill?”

What?! Did the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee really mean to suggest that the more complicated and consequential the piece of legislation the less likely he is to make any effort to read and understand it?

Conyers, of course, didn't say anything we didn't already suspect. No doubt few lawmakers who voted on the $800 billion stimulus package really knew, or understood, what was contained in the hundreds of pages of text. Same goes for the 900-plus pages of the cap-and-trade bill that the House approved recently. And the same could be said of almost any other piece of legislation that wends its way through both chambers. The sophisticates who work inside the Beltway are no doubt rolling their eyes at this very moment at the naivete of anyone who thinks it should or could be otherwise.

So why the fuss? Because these elected officials are signing off on programs that have, or could have, a profound effect on every American -- today and long into the future. The least they could do is know what they are committing us and future generations to. In short, they should do their jobs -- even if it means losing a little shut eye or leaving a little early from that cocktail party fundraiser to bone up on details.

Which brings us to a modest proposal, from Let Freedom Ring, an organization that bills itself as "promoting constitutional government, economic freedom and traditional values." The group has drafted what it calls a "Responsible Healthcare Reform Pledge." It reads:

I, [NAME OF LAWMAKER], pledge to my constituents and the American people that I will not vote to enact any healthcare reform package that (1) I have not read, personally, in its entirety; and, (2) has not been available, in its entirety, to the American people on the Internet for at least 72 hours, so that they can read it too.

So far, 93 lawmakers have signed on. There's no guarantee that signatories will keep their pledge, but at the very least the prospect of having the legislation posted online before a vote gives all manner of muckrackers -- journalists, bloggers, scholars and private citizens alike -- a last chance to weigh in.

Colin Hanna, president of Let Freedom Ring, offers a tip on how senators and congress members can make good on their pledge: With the August recess upon us, lawmakers should set aside that Tom Clancy or John Grisham thriller and instead pack the most recent health-care proposal into the beach bag. "Just some light summer reading," Hanna chuckles.

Any takers out there? I didn't think so.

By Eva Rodriguez  | July 28, 2009; 4:31 PM ET
Categories:  Rodriguez  | Tags:  Eva Rodriguez  
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K Street reads them.

And writes them.

A few committee staff have read it and understand.

But the legislation is just part of the equation. The bureaucrats and administration political appointees promulgating the regs is where the rubber hits the road.

Doubtful Conyers could grasp even a dumbed-down summary. That's why they have talking points.

America's greatest achievement the last 200 years: surviving Congress.

Posted by: DagnyT | July 28, 2009 5:39 PM | Report abuse

Just like Sarbannes-Oxley require CEO's etc. to sign off on the company's financial reports, similarly we should make these people sign a paper that says that they have read the bill and understand what's in it.

Of course, there will be penalties (other than being voted out of office) if they sign without reading or if the bill doesn't have the intended effect.

Posted by: vivek1 | July 28, 2009 6:13 PM | Report abuse

I laugh when the Hill cries that they don't have time to read a bill. Don't we pay them to have support staff? A 10 member committee has how many aids between them? Each member could take 200 pages divide it up and have it summarized in no time. Otherwise, exactly what am I paying the aids to do?

Posted by: AverageJane | July 28, 2009 6:24 PM | Report abuse

Muy dumb write. They do read the bill. They, the politicians are no different that executive in the private sector world. They read the legislation over and over. They write it. They read it. They discuss it. The change it. They amend it. They discuss it more and more and more and more. May the writer here did not read the 1,000 page house bill or the 600 page Senate bill. It is massive. Somebody wrote it. It go read. Easy stones to throw in what is usual right wing banter. Our Senators, ours Congressmen and Congresswomen, and our President are elected by us, their contituents, to represent us. I would give each and everyone of them the benefit of the doubt that they read what they vote on. Shawn Hannity attacks the Congress when they produce over 1,600 pages of health reform legislation. He does not support the legislation. The easy attack is to state, the Congress did not read the legislation. A cheap attack on the journalist is that your write lacks substance. What proof do you have that the Senators and the Congressmen and Congresswomen did not read what they are about to vote on. None. Just the pen to make the flat accusation.

Posted by: bernardo1 | July 28, 2009 7:05 PM | Report abuse

Apparently, Mr.Conyors is in need of a condensed, Dick and Jane version of these bills.

By the way, how is the queen of Detroit Mrs.Conyors doing ?

Posted by: dashriprock | July 28, 2009 7:48 PM | Report abuse

They shape the bill, they understand what has been debated and what goes into the bill. They do not need to read every little detail because the overarching theme is what drives its content.

Posted by: JRM2 | July 28, 2009 7:57 PM | Report abuse

Come on. Every person we elect to the Congress is part of a team. Someone reads the bills. Someone reads the letters. Others have other duties. It is up to the team to do all the work.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | July 28, 2009 8:23 PM | Report abuse

a thousand pages of legal gobbledygook in 2 days with 2 lawyers? i don't think so. maybe to write. but not to read reflect upon and catch all the sneaky verbiage.

Posted by: praxitas | July 28, 2009 11:29 PM | Report abuse

a thousand pages of legal gobbledygook in 2 days with 2 lawyers? i don't think so. maybe to write. but not to read reflect upon and catch all the sneaky verbiage.

Posted by: praxitas | July 28, 2009 11:36 PM | Report abuse

Then lets not let them do it this time. Cap and Tax was a mistake ... is a colassal mistake.

Why let them vote on a HEALTHCARE bill when they do not know what is in it and do not care that most of us don;t want government run healthcare.

Make them go home, meet with their constituants, then come back and vote this mosnster down like 80% of Americans want.

Posted by: markandbeth | July 29, 2009 12:19 AM | Report abuse

And Republicans are over at another story in the Washington Post ( bashing Democrats for sitting down and having their aides explain the Health Care Bill.

I would think that having your aides help you understand a bill is better than just voting no to a bill you haven't read to try to bring down a President.

Posted by: alysheba_3 | July 29, 2009 12:20 AM | Report abuse

They do read before they vote... they read their bank statements.

Posted by: whocares666 | July 29, 2009 12:39 AM | Report abuse

I don't think it's reasonable for every Congressperson to read every line of the tens of thousands of lines of legislation coming through Congress every year. I'm sure they get adequate factual summaries they can review, and then go back to specific parts of bills if they have questions. What I do think is unreasonable is a Congressperson publicly BRAGGING that they never read the bills that pass through Congress. It was an incredibly impolitic and stupid thing to say. "The summaries were sufficiently informative" would have been the far more palatable answer. Giving stupid soundbytes for people to choke on is not going to help their cause.

Posted by: Bosworth2 | July 29, 2009 6:39 AM | Report abuse

You think all members of Congress would understand the legislation if they read it? Whew, buddy... This was Conyers point, and it's correct. Lawmaking has become so specialized, because of our super-litigious (conservative and liberal) society, that only experts can write and read them.

Posted by: Section506 | July 29, 2009 7:35 AM | Report abuse

Seriously people, lets all get a grip. The whole system is corrupt and has been decay almost since it was established. Power corrupts, plain and simple. We are being led into the fire by a bunch of egotistical idiots who have only there own interest at heart. Im sick of all of them, dems and reps. Its time for a radical change in this country. If it is really true, for the people, of the people. Then its time to take it back.

Posted by: rjb121891 | July 29, 2009 8:30 AM | Report abuse

I totally support the idea of each Member of Congress reading every bill. If we are passing so mant laws, and such complex laws, that our representatives can't fully comprehend them, how are the rest of us going to figure out our laws?

Maybe the solution is to propose and pass fewer, simpler laws, and to consider them (and their effects) more carefully.

This is one of the few issues on which I agree with "my" Congressman, Vern Buchanan (R - Rich People)

Posted by: roblimo | July 29, 2009 8:33 AM | Report abuse

I think Bosworth2 was massively understating how ludicrous it is "for every Congressperson to read every line of the tens of thousands of lines of legislation coming through Congress every year."

Perhaps the column author would like to return to the 1700s, when the Congress only needed to pass a few bills to fund whatever Indian wars were currently flaring up, but a modern industrialized nation would grind to a halt if its legislature only passed a few hundred pages of law every year. That's all that we could realistically expect for any human being to read and digest, considering that every amendment and even ultimately-rejected bill would have to be read as well, and that government regulations are not exactly page-turners like "Tom Clancy or John Grisham" novels.

There's a reason that Congress has dozens of committees and subcommittees. Stop trolling.

PS, Watch out for any organization Orwellian enough to call itself "Let Freedom Ring" while promoting "traditional values," which generally means halting the progression of or even rolling back civil rights for anyone other than America's original ruling class, property-owning white males.

Posted by: hayesap8 | July 29, 2009 8:40 AM | Report abuse

Isn't that what staffers are for? A few people for each representative scouring the 1,000 page bill and bringing issues to light is appropriate. Then you have your issues to discuss with a lawyer.

What do staffers do now on the national level? This is how it works for at least a few state level legislators.....

Posted by: theobserver4 | July 29, 2009 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Then lets not let them do it this time. Cap and Tax was a mistake ... is a colassal mistake.

Why let them vote on a HEALTHCARE bill when they do not know what is in it and do not care that most of us don;t want government run healthcare.

Make them go home, meet with their constituants, then come back and vote this mosnster down like 80% of Americans want.

Posted by: markandbeth

-Your stats are confused. Something like 70% of Americans WANT the public option. They just don't want to be forced on it. They want the choice and for that option to keep private HC companies honest because it's glaringly obvious to everyone but you that there is price gouging and rampant inefficiency in our private for profit system.

Posted by: theobserver4 | July 29, 2009 12:21 PM | Report abuse

What Conyers didn't add was: Since no one in the media reads the legislation either. Senators and Representatives don't expect any questions about the details of bills.

Most of the health-care coverage continues to be of the horse-race variety - will Obama's Beautiful Healthcare pass or will Republican lies block it??

Posted by: pilsener | July 29, 2009 12:49 PM | Report abuse

Actually, I don't care if the congresscritter reads it, as long as the actual text of the bill as it will be voted on is posted continuously on the internet for a minimum of 3 full business days prior to the day of the vote.

In today's wired world, everyone with an ax to grind will be poring over the bill with a microscope. The MSM should have a stable of volunteers from law schools, business schools, etc. to participate, allowing them to publish any interesting finds, such as those sneaky paragraphs that favor a particular company over it's competitors, or extend a patent on a profitable drug without anyone knowing.

Sunshine is the best disinfectant.

As an excellent complement, a second document should be posted with the names of any paid lobbyists who discussed the bill with any elected official or their staff, with the names of the recipients of the lobbying, AND the amount of any contributions made to the official by that lobbyist. And the "Lewin Group" would be identified as a wholly owned subsidiary of United Health Group...

No further action would be necessary. The American public would have all the evidence they need to judge the performance of their elected officials.

Posted by: WarriorGrrl | July 29, 2009 1:47 PM | Report abuse

As one whose job it was to read and analyze a piece of legislation before consulting with my candidate on what position he would take (or what he would like to ammend), I can tell you there is no acceptable excuse for a congressman/senator or his staff not doing so.
Conyers should be ashamed of himself. An elected representative who does not read a bill before voting on it does not deserve the honor of representing his or her constituency. And that constituency should accept nothing less.

This is another symptom of the laziness engendered by a two party system that relies on labels and the assumption of an adversarial position on issues. I'm sure many of these legislators would cop out by saying "this is what my leadership wants". NOT GOOD ENOUGH!

By the same token, voters are often lazy when it comes to the voting record of their representatives or, in fact, whether their best interests are being subverted in favor of a large campaign contributor with its own agenda at stake.

Not until we have REAL campaign finance reform (one man/one vote with a $100.00 limit and no bundling) or public financing will there be a real chance of having the kind of representative government that our founding fathers risked their lives and fortunes to achieve.
We owe that to them, ourselves and especially to our children.

Posted by: curtnevan | July 29, 2009 5:36 PM | Report abuse

If a proposed law is too long and complicated for Congressmen to read it before they vote, its too long and complicated to BE a law in a free society.

Freedom is inconsistent with a code of laws so complicated that ordinary people have no idea what the law requires or forbids.

If Congress were not permitted to pass the buck to paid lackies (or to lobbyists who represent vested interests, and so should NEVER be trusted by Congressmen to tell them whats in a given bill), they would HAVE to do the job we elect them for... and the laws we have to live under would necessarily be more transparent.

Posted by: Iconoblaster | July 29, 2009 6:21 PM | Report abuse

Does this mean that the same Congress that is responsible for writing Bills and Laws, does not even read or understand the Bills and Laws that they have supposedly written?

Posted by: lcarter0311 | July 29, 2009 8:17 PM | Report abuse

With the August recess coming up, members of Congress will have a whole month to read the lengthy Health Care Bill. No one should have an excuse for not reading the entire bill.

Posted by: PaulWhiteley | July 30, 2009 12:00 AM | Report abuse

Senator Boehner said that a 1,018-page bill is obviously too lengthy for anyone to read, which is ridiculous. Numerous books are that long, such as Gone with the Wind, beside important bills he and his staff should be reading, analyzing and suggesting improvements to.

He's clearly not doing his job. Going on TV to criticize a bill he hasn't even read reveals he's getting large donations from the insurance and pharmaceutical companies and that's all he needs to know.

Posted by: BettyW1 | July 30, 2009 1:05 AM | Report abuse

Rather than write this long bill it would be much easier to just give the people the same health program that congress has. They know that pretty well. The alternative would be for Congress and all government employees to get the health care plan they have designed for us. It is always amazing how much they care about us, but not that much, to have the same health care.
We get the government we deserve and that is so sad.

Posted by: gupton1 | July 30, 2009 11:52 AM | Report abuse

Here's a thought.
How about if Congress has to write these Laws in the same, easy to understand, language that the credit card companies now have to. That way we will all be able to understand them.
Two, three, or fifty page summerized high lights can not possibly give a clear understanding of a thousand plus page Bill.

Posted by: commoner2 | August 4, 2009 10:38 PM | Report abuse

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