The dubious value of reading legislation out loud to near-empty rooms

The effect was twofold. First, it meant that two clerks spent nearly 11 hours laboriously walking through the 628-page document. Second, it meant that the Senate wouldn’t do anything else over those 10-plus hours, which stretched from about 3:20 p.m. until just past 2 a.m.

Johnson framed his decision as a desire that the public “know what’s in the bill,” though the actual intent was obvious to anyone familiar with Senate procedures: delay the passage of something the opposition party didn’t have the votes to stop. (In an interview on Fox News on Friday, he made this point explicitly: Without the delay from reading the bill, there would have been “no time to really prepare decent amendments.”)

But this was a surprisingly convincing argument, one offered repeatedly in response to an article I wrote about Johnson’s move. So it’s worth considering on the merits. Did Johnson’s procedural demand that the bill be read aloud actually enhance familiarity with its contents?

We can begin by stipulating that it did not inform many (or any) of the senators who would be voting on the bill. As Forbes reported, most senators left the chamber as the reading progressed, with the exception of Johnson and the senator tasked with presiding over the session.

This is because senators don’t learn about the content of bills by hearing them read in the chamber — nor would you want them to. They have staff who are paid to pore over policy details. They speak with their caucus leaders to understand the bill’s provisions. If they were only becoming familiar with legislation when read out loud shortly before the vote, they’d likely be less informed, not more.

We can also offer that not many people learned about the bill’s contents from the marathon session, either. This is a role the media plays, both mainstream and partisan. The Washington Post has reported extensively on the bill’s contents. Liberal media have picked out issues of importance to the left; conservative media have rifled through it with an eye toward the right’s concerns.

The challenge is that legislation is written to have the force of law, not to clearly explain its intent. There’s a lot of “amend Subsection C to include the word ‘and’ ” sort of stuff, requiring that you know what Subsection C said in the first place.

But, here. See for yourself. Hit the orange button below and read a random part of the bill. Then vote on how informative it was to read that snippet.

Granted, you will at times be shown out-of-context descriptions that would make more sense had you heard the preceding section. But generally speaking, the density and intricacy of the legislation itself defies the actual utility in reading it directly. These things are necessarily complex! That complexity is not removed when spoken out loud. Quite the opposite.

Regardless, if one chose to sit and listen to the bill being read, one would presumably glean some new insight into what the bill does. Perhaps that insight is wrong, given the opaqueness with which the legislation is written. But something would stick.

I am highly skeptical, however, that many people actually watched.

CSPAN has a feed of the reading, which you can view. The link to that feed was shared on Twitter 23 times. It did not go viral.

To put a very fine point on it: It is good for the public to know and understand what complex legislation does. This is why The Post and other media outlets do what we do to help unpack that complexity.

Johnson himself has had plenty of opportunities to inform the public about what the bill does. In a floor speech on Wednesday, he mostly demonstrated the scale of the bill’s cost by making comparisons like the height of $1.9 trillion in $1 bills. (It is very high.) But Johnson’s procedural maneuver was not that sort of effort, one legitimately aimed at informing the public about the bill’s contents. It was, instead, an effort to demonstrate the fervency of his opposition.

In conveying that bit of information, the reading of the legislation was entirely effective.

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