OPINION: Reading is Fundamental—Except for Congress

On December 16, Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO) blasted out a picture on social media that was both humorous and troubling at the same time. It depicts a frazzled Polis hidden behind a two foot pile of paper on his desk. The 2,342 page document sitting in front of him was the Omnibus Bill.

In the text of the image, Polis goes in great detail of some of the more worrisome qualities of legislation disguised as end-of-the-year pork barrel legalese: a cybersecurity provision that extended the NSA’s access to private citizens’ information, a $60 billion “slush fund” for the Pentagon, and countless subsidies benefitting corporate America.

But one of the most disconcerting aspects of this legislation is the lack of time provided to fully debate the lengthy document. Polis and his fellow colleagues were handed the bill with only a few hours of preparation before it was presented on the floor.

In the blink of an eye, the monstrous $1.1 trillion budget deal to keep the federal government running until September 2016 passed the House (316-113), the Senate (65-33), and was signed into law by President Obama on December 18 — only two days after it was introduced.

Considering the dense scope of this bill, it is hard to believe that those who voted in favor of it gave it their full and thorough consideration.

“Nobody read it, so, frankly, my biggest complaint is that I have no idea what kind of things they stuck in the bill,” Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) laments. “It’s a part of the reason why government is broke.”

Nobody read it, so, frankly, my biggest complaint is that I have no idea what kind of things they stuck in the bill.
This isn’t the first time (nor will it be the last) where Congress has managed to codify a lengthy piece of legislation without giving lawmakers time to read, comprehend, and debate the finer points of the legalese.

The Patriot Act is another example of a monstrous bill that was poorly vetted by Congress. The act amended dozens of long-standing laws that limited government surveillance, such as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 and the Right to Financial Privacy Act of 1978. All in all, the amount of federal statutes amended or created by this bill is staggering.

Considering the expansiveness and intrusiveness of the legislation proposed, debate over the Patriot Act was disproportionately scarce. The 354 pages of the Patriot Act were not available to review until the bill was presented to the House floor on October 23, 2001.

From there, it passed the House (357-66) on Oct. 24, then the Senate (98-1) on Oct. 25, and signed into law by President Bush on Oct. 26. There were several accounts of legislators calling in the American Civil Liberties Union the day after voting and asking, “What did I vote for?”

The rhetoric in favor of the landmark security legislation was quick to reopen the fresh wounds of the 9/11 attacks as an emotional appeal. During the initial review of the legislation, Attorney General John Ashcroft stated without an ounce of hyperbole, “If you don’t pass the original bill as introduced by the administration the next terrorist attack will be on your shoulders.”

Nothing speeds up the political process quite like the blemish of a national tragedy on a congressman’s record.

This sense of urgency commonly precedes some of the most Titanic-sized bills of recent years. On the eve of the vote for the Affordable Care Act, then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi famously (or infamously) stated, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it, away from the fog of controversy.”

If transparency is controversial, it’s no wonder lawmakers don’t read these bills.

Efforts have been made to force a grace period that not only allows Congress enough time to deliberate, but also gives the voting public time to access the text of the bill and express their thoughts to their elected leaders.

The Read the Bills Act would require the public to have access to all bills under consideration 72 hours before Congress deliberates on them. Versions of the bill have been presented several times: HR 688 in 2006, HR 504 in 2007, HR 554 in 2009, SR 307 in 2009, and SR 16 in 2011. Surprisingly, it hasn’t made much headway.

This may shock most voters, but Congress is rarely eager to pass legislation that places a greater burden of responsibility upon themselves. Weird, right?

It’s hard to imagine something like the Read the Bills Act doing anything more than paying lip service to the already rigged game of lawmaking.

To bypass hyper-partisanship and gridlock, congressional leadership spends an inordinate amount of time brokering deals behind closed doors, crafting multi-layered bills, and sprinkling in special interest favors as carrots on the stick for lawmakers eager to please their constituents.

Then these 1,000-paged bills are dropped on the desk for review the day they are presented to the floor. Those who were in on the ground floor of the legislation already know how they plan to vote, and they do so with the confidence of a filibuster-proof majority already being garnered. Those who are seeing the bill for the first time are powerless to stop it.

This pattern is reflected in the “productivity” of Congress of recent years and presents an interesting paradox: Fewer and fewer bills are being passed, but the length of legislation (as measured in pages) is on the rise. When we demand that our lawmakers do more with less, this is probably not what we had in mind.

College advisors should take note of this pattern when making their recommendations to students. If a student seems to struggle in reading comprehension, then perhaps a future in politics might be the best recommended path.