Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Daily Strike-8/13/09-Read The Bill!!

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. Tonight, we continue our series of recess musings. This one is on the irritating charge that important bills (such as health care rerform) are too long, and that members of Congress haven't read the bill.

1,000 PAGE BILL: You will hear a lot of crazy things at these town hall meetings, as we talked about yesterday. But one of the most curious to me is how often people mention that the bill is "1,000 pages long" and that their Congressman "needs to read the bill!" "Give US time to read the bill," theses protesters shout! Bill O'Reilly chastised Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) about the length of the bill and said that Congress should pass 5 page summaries (they already do). I don't take too much stock in what these people say, but it's not just them who have lobbed the "read the bill" complaints. Jon Stewart, someone I respect greatly for holding politicians accountable for saying and doing ridiculous things, almost always brings this up when speaking with public officials. He always gets huge applause lines from his audience, and the politician is always sitting there smiling, tacitly endorsing Stewart's contention that bills should be 5 pages and simple! There are a lot of reasons why bills are long. Some of them are problematic, oftentimes lawmakers stick in special projects to win a few votes, and sometimes there are provisions that are intentionally buried. But the main reason, is that issues are complicated, and every potential loophole needs to be covered. For example, in the health care bill there is a long section on public measurement and reporting. It wouldn't surprise most of you that I think this is important. No doubt it would be excluded if we made bills short just for the sake of making them short. As for the whole thing about reading the bill (there is actually an organized movement to get members of Congress to read the bill), it's a good applause line. I admit it. I even support it in principle. But some of the griping is pretty disingenuous. It's not like bills are airdropped from outer space. SOMEONE writes them, usually legislative counsel, with detailed instructions from members. The people who sponsor bills have read them, and give them to others months and months in advance. The Congressional Research Service prints out a summary cheat sheet of the bill's major provisions. It is then considered in committee, and then on the floor of both the House and the Senate, sometimes twice. So there are a lot of opportunities for members to voice their objections. On some bills, like the climate change bill, amendments are airdropped in at the last minute. But even these amendments are available several hours in advance, and are almost always proposals that have been previously considered. What's more disingenuous is that the people complaining about whether the bill has been read or not don't support the bill, and wouldn't no matter what was in it. Just admit that you don't like the policy, and don't go on a moral crusade about how you haven't had time to read the bill. Every single member of Congress, bar none, has voted for a bill that they haven't read. Both parties do it, and they do it all the time. And I'm not sure it really is that bad of a thing. There are a lot of people in Congress who aren't the sharpest knives in the drawer, and wouldn't know what half the stuff in each bill actually meant. Everyone votes based on pre-conceived ideology or political considerations. There is not one member of Congress who picks up every bill that's considered with an open mind, and reads the whole thing. If they're undecided, they're almost always deciding which vote would be more politically punishing.

The question is, why is this an important issue and what makes it so salient in the current debate about health care. I was reading a piece by a psychologist recently (unfortunately I forgot where I read it, so I can't cite it) who was talking about why people cling to conspiracy theories. He said that it gives people comfort when they think they, and they alone know a truth that is not apparent to anyone else. It helps them rationalize things in their minds that are difficult to understand. It's a lot easier for people to be prone to believe conspiracies when they see that a bill is so many pages. It makes it seem, to them, like members of Congress are trying to hide something from them.

The minority party in Congress will then play on these conspiratorial fears to their own advantage. (I don't see them complaining about reading the 1000 page substitute amendments they submit at the last minute). On almost every major bill that comes up in Congress, no matter who is in the majority, there will be some complaint that the bill is too long, that members didn't have enough time to read it before it was introduced etc. It is a way to sow doubt with the public about the bill, if opposing outright isn't enough. The cycle then continues. People watching CSPAN see half of the speakers basically suggesting that there could be something scary hidden in a piece of legislation.

The wackos at the Town Hall may be a lost cause, but for sensible people like Jon Stewart, stop being witty and clever by acting outraged at how long bills are. Issues are complicated, and sometimes need to be fleshed out. And members of Congress just don't read every piece of legislation that they vote on. Ideally they would, but that's just not the way things work, and there are much worse things to get outraged about. Like 46 million people without health insurance.

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