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With the massive health care bill about to come to the House and Senate, members of Congress are arguing about a reading assignment: How long should they have to read a bill that could be 1,000 pages long?
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has promised 72 hours — three days — for a final bill to be available online before a vote. Centrist Democratic senators have asked Majority Leader Harry Reid for guarantees of 72 hours for bills in the Senate.
But that hasn't pleased some Republicans.
"Three days is an embarrassment," said Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. "It shows how embarrassed these Democrats are of their bill. They know this health care bill is radioactive with the American public and if they give the American public more than three days to read this bill, all hell might break loose and they might never get this bill actually passed and done." She suggested three months would be a more appropriate time for review.
Bachmann's comments bring up a good point: How long is long enough to read the health care bill?
We read the entire House version when it came out in July. Certainly, at just over 1,000 pages, it was long. At times, it was exceedingly boring. We took frequent Diet Coke breaks. Day passed into night, then day, then night, then ... memory fails. We're sorry to report that we didn't think to time how long we took.
So to explore Bachmann's comment, we wanted a back-of-the-envelope estimate of how much time it might take the average person to literally read the text of the bill. A computer program told us the House bill weighed in at 163,000 words. The average adult, meanwhile, can read passages aloud at an average rate of 154 words per minute, according to a 2003 measurement of basic adult literacy by the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics. At that rate, the average person would need about 18 hours to read the bill aloud. So if you had the three days Pelosi would guarantee, you'd only have to spend six hours per day reading the bill.
Most people, though, can read faster when they're reading silently. The estimates we found for adult readers ranged from 200 to 400 words per minute. At those rates, a person could conquer the bill in seven to 13 hours.
Let's say that you're a better-than-average reader, though — even a speed reader. We spoke with Bonnie James, the president of Advanced Reading Concepts, an organization that teaches speed reading to students at weekend courses and in corporate settings. James said that graduates of her classes can read, on average, anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 words per minute. At that rate, you could read the bill in about two or three hours.
But those times would be for someone who had a general understanding of the material and what it contained, James said.
"A trained speed reader, looking for specific things, could probably go through it at 1,200 words a minute," James said. "But you don't just open the bill and then read it really, really fast. You need to be looking for information, looking for certain words. You don't just go into a trance."
Aside from the issue of reading speed, we also asked a few political experts whether they thought 72 hours was enough time to read the bill from a public policy point of view.
"I do think that it's not a clean-cut question, partly because bills and the specific language they use can be very arcane," said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "It's difficult for anyone other than a legislative counsel to read a bill and make head or tail of it."
Another downside: A window gives opponents time to lift passages of legislation out of context in order to distort and confuse the public, Ornstein said.
Nevertheless, Ornstein supports a 72-hour window so that Congress can engage in a more deliberative process.
"The pattern over the last several years has been to bring them up with no notice in the middle of the night, so given that, I'll settle for an ironclad 72 hours," he said.
Jim Harper, the director of information policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, said the waiting periods can prevent legislative mischief, such as last-minute, unrelated items being attached to bills.
"Any kind of review period is going to cause Congress to be more careful, because they don't want to get caught looking foolish," he said.
Waiting periods also tend to disperse power to people who might otherwise be at the margins of the debate. Centrist Democrats in the Senate, for example, have asked for waiting periods after amendments and conference reports.
"These senators, even though they are Democrats, they want a little bit of power distributed back to them," Harper said. "When things move fast, everything is decided by chairmen and leadership."
Harper doesn't think three months is unreasonable. "When you're talking about legislation as significant and complex as the health care legislation, three months is not too long at all," Harper said. "In my opinion, it's too big an issue to handle between January and October of a single year."
The open government advocates at the Sunlight Foundation have been collecting signature on an online petition at ReadTheBill.org, and have 20,000 supporters so far. They want all bills to receive the same standard of 72 hours of public review.
"We do think it's long enough, and it strikes the right balance of not delaying the legislation indefinitely," said Lisa Rosenberg, Sunlight's government affairs consultant.
CNN.com, Bachmann: House Dems 'embarrassed' by their health care bill , Oct. 6, 2009
Speaker Nancy Pelosi's blog "The Gavel," 72 hours , Sept. 25, 2009
Eight Senators Want the Public to Read the Health Care Bill
, Oct. 7, 2009
National Center for Education Statistics, Basic Reading Skills and the Literacy of America’s Least Literate Adults:Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), Supplemental Studies
Interview with Bonnie James of Advanced Reading Concepts
Interview with Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute
Interview with Jim Harper of the Cato Institute
Interview with Lisa Rosenberg of the Sunlight Foundation