Can You Read a Bill in Under 24 Hours?

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Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted on a bill that ought to offend Americans of all stripes.  The culmination of a compromise with the demands made during August’s pro-drilling, Republican sit-in, the bill would end a 27-year ban on offshore drilling and revoke $18 billion in tax incentives and subsidies to the oil industry. Now it may be remarkable to some because it repeals a near three-decade long congressional policy, or because the Republicans clamoring for a vote all punched their electronic tally machine, “Nay,” but neither of those reasons make it offensive. The bill’s offensiveness is underlined by its being unremarkable.

Unremarkable because it, like too many bills, was nearly impossible to read or study prior to a final vote. The bill, H.R. 6899, clocking in at 290 pages long was introduced at 9:24 pm on September 15, 2008 and was voted out of the House Rules Committee at midnight. The final vote was held at 10:05 on September 16, 2008. That left 24.5 hours for lawmakers, staff, watchdogs, and concerned citizens to read the bill, or if one counts from the time the bill reported out of Rules, 22 hours.

That’s 290 pages of crucially important legislation to read, digest, and understand in one day. If a reader can plow through text at one-page-per-minute the bill would take approximately 4.8 hours to read, which makes it conceivable that someone could have read the bill. (Legislation doesn’t exactly fly by as fast as a novel, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which clocks in at 287 pages.) Parsing and understanding legislation must take a longer amount of time. Additionally, calculations should factor in the basic human need for sleep.

Lawmakers and citizens should not accept that bills will be introduced that no one can or will read. This Comprehensive American Energy Security and Consumer Protection Act goes down in the pantheon of bills released with not enough time to read them. Lawmakers should require that all bills be available online for public consumption for 72 hours prior to a vote.

It is as though congressional leaders do not expect the individual offices of our representatives to consult their own gray matter before casting a vote. Instead, lawmakers are positioned in a way that predetermines the passage of a particular bill prior to its introduction.

The bill’s sponsor Rep. Nick Rahall defended the bill’s rushed passage by explaining that there had been “extensive, wide-ranging negotiations that have helped produce this bill.” None of these negotiations were held in public and the bill went from introduction to a vote as if one of its sections contained a faster-than-light drive. So forgive me if I don’t take Rahall’s word on this.

This is a simple element of transparency: bills should not be pushed through without proper time to examine and consult. Citizens should be given time to provide their opinions to their representatives prior to a vote.

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  • informative post, keep it up.,

  • Wow!! It’s getting better and better.,

  • Linda Fredrick

    I would agree with Mr. Banister, the general public would need a week to decipher a document of that length and jargon. For the the average individual to consider possible repercussions and effects of a bill, they would need a longer period of time if they had not been watching it for some time. Then the question would become- how would the public notice be posted in an accessible manner?

  • Just to play Devil’s Advocate, there is – at least in theory – a chance that the changes in a bill can be read in 24 hours, with reasonable levels of effort. The final version of a bill is likely not too different from an earlier revision. If you have read an earlier revision, chances are catching up on the revisions – with the right tools – is quite possible within 24 hours.

    Software folk are accustomed to using “version-control” tools to catch and compute the differences between two revisions of a large text. For software folks the text represents a program. For Congress-folk the text represents a bill. The point is that tools exist to make reading the changes to large texts not unreasonably difficult.

    Is your average Congress-person doing anything this fancy? Probably not. Some might … there is a small percentage of lawyer-types who turns out pretty good at using software to solve problems.

    On the flip side, as a citizen who does not spend all my time tracking Congress, even 72 hours is a bit short. Personally I would be happier if the minimal time from final revision requires at least a week or a month (or longer) before the bill could be voted.