There's a scene in "Fahrenheit 911," left-wing filmmaker Michael Moore's mostly forgotten 2004 tirade against George W. Bush, that some of today's unhappy voters might recognize.
Moore was angry that Congress passed the Patriot Act so quickly that some lawmakers hadn't read the whole bill. So Moore went to Democratic Rep. John Conyers for an explanation.
"How could Congress pass this Patriot Act without even reading it?" Moore asked.
"Sit down, my son," Conyers said, lowering his voice as if to reveal a trade secret. "We don't read most of the bills. Do you really know what that would entail, if we were to read every bill that we passed?"
Years have passed, and we're in a completely different political environment today. But there is still no single complaint about Congress that resonates more with voters than the charge that lawmakers do not read the bills they vote on. How can they enact far-reaching legislation that touches almost every part of American life without even knowing what they're passing?
"Imagine if you went into your doctor and you're sent to a specialist and they don't even look at your chart or talk to you," says Rob Steele, a Michigan cardiologist who is challenging longtime Democratic Rep. John Dingell. "That's what is going on. They're not reading the bills, and they're not representing the people."
Across the country, Republican candidates -- men and women who, like Steele, have never run for public office before and aspire to become citizen-legislators -- feel the same way. So much so that a read-the-bill provision was the least controversial part of the House Republicans' Pledge to America, unveiled Sept. 23.
"We will ensure that bills are debated and discussed in the public square by publishing the text online for at least three days before coming up for a vote in the House of Representatives," says the Pledge. "No more hiding legislative language from the minority party, opponents and the public. Legislation should be understood by all interested parties before it is voted on."
Republican leaders didn't come up with that provision on their own. They got it by listening. "It's the expectation of the voters," says a GOP aide. "Our members are routinely being asked, 'Did you read this? Did you understand what it meant?'"
It wouldn't be hard to do. Republican Rep. John Culberson and Democratic Rep. Brian Baird already have a measure pending, H.R. 554 -- aka the "Read the Bill" bill -- that would require that the final language of a bill be available on the Internet for 72 hours before it is voted on. So far, it hasn't passed.
Of course, the Pledge can't promise that every lawmaker will actually read every bill. If enacted, it would just assure that all have a chance to do so. And even if lawmakers take the time to read a particular bill, there is always the question of whether they will understand it. While some things Congress passes are simple, others are quite complex. Bills amend obscure sections of legislation that has been passed, amended and amended again over the years. Complicated formulas for Medicare are adjusted in ways that can cost the taxpayers billions. Byzantine tax provisions are laid out. It's not always easy to understand.
To make sure that reading the bill actually improves the legislative process, GOP leaders routinely make available members and staff who are well-informed about this or that issue, as well as outside experts who can help.
Experience shows that smart citizen-legislators learn quickly. Tom Coburn, now a senator from Oklahoma, was a doctor who had never run for anything when he won election to the House in 1994. Jim DeMint was a businessman with no political experience when he ran for the House in 1998. Today, they're leading their party.
If it ever were to happen, the practice of actually reading bills would have one more effect that hasn't been much remarked on: Congress would probably pass fewer bills. That's something John Conyers himself foresaw when, in "Fahrenheit 911," he speculated on what would happen "if we were to read every bill that we passed."
Conyers thought for a moment before answering his own question. "Well, the good thing, it would slow down the legislative process." After the past 18 months, can anyone deny that reading, thinking and slowing things down on Capitol Hill would be a good idea?
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