Some opponents of the President's health care plan have been berating lawmakers with entreaties to "read the bill," implying that members of Congress often don't read the laws they vote on. Harper's Ken Silverstein says the protesters are probably right, but they're missing the point.
Artist: Death to the Storm
CROWD CHANTING: Read the bill! Read the bill! Read the bill! Read the bill!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Here's a common refrain you may have heard resounding in town halls from the critics of the president's proposed healthcare changes.
CROWD CHANTING: Read the bill! Read the bill! Read the bill!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rep. John Conyers said he really didn't see the point.
REP. JOHN CONYERS: I love these members that get up and say, read the bill. 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?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But even if he had decided to read the bill he’s supposed to vote on, he'd still have to pick which version to read. Democrats in the House and Senate have different proposals, a bipartisan group of senators is discussing a compromise plan, and both the Republicans and the President have outlines of their own. One incentive for Conyers to pick the House Democrats’ version of the bill, he could listen to it on his iPod. A group of voice actors have formed a website called HearTheBill.com, where they're posting an audio version.
WOMAN: HR 3200: To provide affordable, quality health care for all Americans and reduce the growth in health care
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why does this bill rate its own MP3, and why, after passing the largely unread Patriot Act and the Stimulus Bill, both of which cut to the heart of American values and fears every bit as much as the Health Care Bill, is suddenly everyone so big on reading? We called Ken Silverstein, who covers Washington for Harper’s Magazine. Hello, Ken.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Hi.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So it seems to me that this bill is being read or misread a lot more noisily [LAUGHS] than many others. But listen to these guys.
CROWD CHANTS: Read the bill! Read the bill!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You get the sense that suddenly reading is, you know, really fundamental. What gives?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, bills are passed constantly that no one has read. If you were to go to some of these members who are most vocally complaining about this, look at their committee assignments and then look at the bills that that committee approved and then were voted on by the full Congress and ask them, oh, tell me about that bill; you know, tell me about page 63 and this important provision, [BROOKE LAUGHS] they won't have the foggiest idea of what you’re talking about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sounds like a trick question to me.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: It is sort of a trick question, but even if you were to be maybe a little bit fairer and just ask them to tell you about some of the very important provisions in some of the bills that they voted on in recent years, huge, huge bills, they will not be able to discuss those bills in anything other than generalities. Now, partly that’s because the only people who read bills, if they're read at all, are staffers. Members of Congress never read these bills. They don't have time. A few years ago, I wrote about an appropriations bill, the massive bills that fund the departments of the federal government. They're among the most important bills that Congress deals with. These things are routinely voted on and no one has read them. I mean, I wrote about one bill in particular. It was 16 billion dollars in money, and it was actually finished at 12:15 a.m. and it was voted on 16 hours later.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In your piece, you said that if they'd wanted to read the bill, they would have had [LAUGHS] to have read 208 pages an hour every hour for 16 hours.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Exactly.
[LAUGHTER] And, you know, that was if they happened to be cruising the House website where it was posted at 12:15 a.m. and they'd stayed up all night because of this page-turner that they just couldn't put down. I mean, this happens all the time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As a citizen, one would think that what we could do to help is to read the bill, or a bill, if we could get a hold of one. But they're largely unreadable.
WOMAN: In subparagraph A, by striking subparagraph B and inserting subparagraphs B and D and subparagraph B, by adding at the end the following:
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ooh, wait a second, I love this part.
WOMAN: Quote, “Subparagraph D.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, what’s a news consumer to do?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Go to organizations that are monitoring and tracking and analyzing the bill, and they will have the highlights, the really exciting parts, on their websites and they will have analyzed the exciting parts. And it'll spare you, as the public citizen and consumer, having to read the whole thing yourself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So name a couple of those.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: You probably want to check out websites on both sides of the debate. I know, for example, Public Citizen, which would be on the left side, has information about health care reform, to see what members of Congress are being funded by what interest groups, go to OpenSecrets.org, which is a very good website that tracks campaign finance and also usually will analyze issues as well. There’s FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com that will check the assertions that are made and let you know who’s lying and who’s telling you the truth or somewhere in between. VoteSmart.org will take you to a list of organizations that are advocating for health care reform, whether pro or con. This is everybody from the AARP to the Children’s Health Fund to the Global AIDS Alliance. There’s a list of probably about 30 or 40 groups. So there are ways to cut through the fog without subjecting yourself to reading the entire bill, which won't make you any smarter anyway because you'll have fallen asleep after about page six.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ken, thank you very much.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ken Silverstein covers Washington for Harper’s Magazine.