The case for not reading the legislation you're voting on.

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Sept. 23 2009 8:05 PM

Just Skim It

The case for not reading the legislation you're voting on.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Just when you thought the debate about health care reform couldn't get more obscure—is a co-op a public option? Will the CBO rescore the chairman's mark?—the Senate finance committee turned Wednesday morning to an even more arcane subject. It spent more than an hour arguing about whether to use "conceptual" or "legislative" language in the bill they will, one day, perhaps even in the year 2009, vote on.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

This may sound unimportant. Or, like discussions about fonts, it might seem deeply important to a fevered few. It's not. The debate touches on a familiar complaint that members of Congress don't read the legislation they vote on. Just because it's familiar, however, doesn't mean the complaint has merit.

By custom, the finance committee uses "conceptual language"—also known as plain English—for a couple of reasons. One, at least in this case, the legislative language doesn't yet exist: There are 500-plus amendments to the bill, and they aren't yet in final form. Two, it uses plain English because the issues it is talking about are complicated and technical. (See an example here.)

So using "conceptual language" (found here) actually makes it more likely that members (and the public) can understand what's being debated. After everyone agrees, the concepts are sent to the Legislative Counsel's office and put into legislative language, which is debated and voted on.

This process has been followed regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats are in the majority. But on the health care bill, Republicans on the committee wanted the final bill to be written in legislative language before they voted.


Democrats called this demand a delaying tactic that would stall the bill for three weeks. The longer a bill sits dormant, the greater chance it will die (which is the whole reason the White House has been hurrying along health care legislation as much as it can). The concepts being discussed, they point out, have been under debate for more than a year, in great specificity. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, has been in intense discussion—more than 60 meetings lasting more than 100 hours. Nothing will be further illuminated by putting the bill into more complicated language.

Republicans claimed it was a matter of simple common sense. "I truly do not understand the skepticism about this request, the reluctance and the reticence. This is about doing our job," said Snowe. "If it takes two more weeks, it takes two more weeks. We're talking about trillions of dollars in the final analysis. What is the rush? Is there's something happening in two weeks?"

Republicans argue the delay is necessary because there can be a slip between the agreement and the way it gets interpreted by the lawyers. After you've met with the architect, you still want to make sure the builder is faithful to your exciting idea for a pool table in the Jacuzzi.

Politically, having Snowe make the go-slow case is a problem for Democrats. Until now, she's been portrayed as the reasonable Republican, and she may be the only Republican to sign onto health care reform in the end. Why is she suddenly so unreasonable? Partisans would prefer the idea be associated with Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky. He's eccentric and occasionally offensive. (They can also make cracks about him wanting more time so he can get in more shut-eye.)



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