# How do politicians scrutinize bills that are thousands of pages long?

The recently passed stimulus bill is said to be 5,593 pages long, and allocates $900 billion in funds. It's no surprise that there was no chance to read or amend the bill. The logistics of revising a 5,593-page document must be nearly overwhelming. I am curious how many people are involved in coordinating the document. I can only guess that the various parts of the documents are written by various parties, and then collated into a longer document. Is it known who wrote the various parts of it? Is there a person who has read the entire document? • Your original headline looked like it was an anti-long-bill rant, so I've edited it to hopefully take that essence away while capturing the substantive point of your question. – Joe C Dec 28 '20 at 10:58 • Fair enough. I don't want to assume that politicians scrutinize them, though. – adam.baker Dec 28 '20 at 11:22 • The recently passed bill that is 5593 pages long allocates$2.3 trillion in funds, not $900 billion.The bill is essentially 13 or so bills in one: The twelve bills that comprised the$1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill, plus an add-on \$900 billion stimulus bill. – David Hammen Dec 28 '20 at 23:29
• They don't, they do what their lobbyists tell them to do. – crobar Dec 29 '20 at 21:23
• I'd hope the process resembles something like large software builds. I wonder if they've discovered source control. – Script Kitty Dec 29 '20 at 22:48

Teamwork and Staff

No single representative reads all those pages, but the various committee members look at the parts which are their area of expertise. And then a representative on the Armed Services committee (from either side of the aisle) trusts that his or her party's representatives on the Agriculture committee got the agricultural matters right, and he or she trusts the budget committee people that they got as many concessions as possible out of the other side.

Various draft texts get debated in the run-up to a compromise, deals are made ("you vote for this aircraft carrier and we vote for that tax cut"), and staff assembles the parts of the compromise into one bill.

• Politicians are generally not given a tome like that and expected to have read it by the next day, either. These mammoth bills are worked on for months and generally grow from much smaller documents due to concessions and provisions added by the politicians involved. Even if the politician doesn't know the whole thing, they will often know the gist of it, as given them by their team, as this Answer states. – computercarguy Dec 28 '20 at 21:28

Excellent window into this issue in the form of a podcast of This American Life episode 250, act 2, 'Detroit is in the House'. The show is pretty much 'a day in the life' of a member of the Michigan State House of Reps, but includes a backstory on how as a rooky, the member actually DID read every bill, which led to a surprising outcome...but with experience he no longer does so, trusting input from his fellow party members.

But apart from that show's portrayal (trigger warning: it presents a liberal-friendly version of events) of the legislative process, I'd say any complex piece of legislation is the result of a process like that which generates the complex machinery/operations such as a car or school: a car's many systems are designed by teams and then degree to which they work for the intended, overall result is given a thumbs up/down by higher-up executives, or in the case of a school, the complexity is added over time as schools have taken on more tasks and specialized staff were added, and layers of bureaucracy/procedures and so on. With a big, mega-bill piece of legislation, there are separate components that were worked on in committees, those pieces are linked together, but also, the complex tasks and issues dealt with by a mega-bill have developed over time with past examples guiding those involved in making this year's version.

• A trigger warning for conservatives, how ironic. – user253751 Dec 29 '20 at 17:12
• In that podcast, I don't understand the purpose of the Republicans undoing all their ammendments and then killing it in the Brandenberg story about the surprise on-site copper/lead testing/ – DKNguyen Dec 29 '20 at 22:27

I think it basically works like this.

1. Have your staffer confirm that the parts you asked for or were promised are really in there, if any.
2. (Optional) Have your staffer confirm that the wording is intact from what you wanted.
3. Vote how your party whip tells you (whether the parts you wanted are in there or not).

The late congressman John Conyers (Democrat from Michigan) was interviewed for the Michael Moore film Fahrenheit 911. The exchange I'm sure was shocking to many in the audience. I remember hearing gasps in the theater when I saw it:

Interviewer: How could Congress pass this PATRIOT ACT without even reading it?

Conyers: Sit down, my son. 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 pass? Well the good thing, it would slow down the legislative process. (laughs)

Rep. Conyers seemed to be annoyed by the question. Actually reading the bills he voted on seemed like a joke to him. And if you watch network news a lot, you will see the commentators occasionally reference this cynically, that no one reads these omnibus bills.

It's not their money. What do they care?

• Pork barrel spending is about only caring about more investment for the district you represent and has nothing to do with not reading bills. – David Mulder Dec 29 '20 at 17:44
• Yes this could have been clearer. OP was asking about gigantic 'omnibus' bills which are normally filled with pork. I'll just take the comment out. – wberry Jan 4 at 18:15

Some bills are pre-written by lobbyists. They're donors, politically you're both on the same side; you can assume their lawyers did a good job (and if not, they can't blame you). There's no reason to read those bills.

This partly USA Today story is about how State legislatures pass fill-in-the-blank bills without reading them. This one from Colorado Public Radio is about a congressperson submitting a bill on oil leases, written by a friendly oil company. It goes into some detail about why this is done.

• .. or rather, they're donors and therefore you're on their side politically. – pjc50 Dec 28 '20 at 22:33
• It isn't just evil lobbyists that do this. Some bills are also pre-written by members and subcommittees and committees. Congress is full of freestanding solutions to small problems looking for vehicles to ride together with to become enacted in the face of apathy over the issue in question from most members. In computer coding terms, there are all sorts of pre-written subroutines out there ready to be dumped into larger programs when the opportunity arises to utilize them. Many of these subroutines have been around for years and are familiar to negotiators as a block concept, – ohwilleke Dec 29 '20 at 0:14
• @ohwilleke But that would be a different answer: "many pages are boilerplate, or they saw them 3 years ago" (which is still a lot of reading). Here I'm saying people outside of congress wrote some and the congresspeople don't read those, ever. – Owen Reynolds Dec 29 '20 at 1:10
• This sounds like it's talking about more targeted bills than the wide-ranging bill mentioned in the question. I doubt any single lobbying group pre-wrote the stimulus bill. – Barmar Dec 30 '20 at 16:36
• @Barmar Why require one lobbyist? It would be more likely that 300 congresspeople each slipped in 2-4 donor-written pages. Then the rest was legitimately written and read by subcommittees (as o.m. writes). – Owen Reynolds Dec 30 '20 at 20:23

How do politicians scrutinise bills that are thousands of pages long?

The answer is easy: they don’t. And being politicians, they naturally consider that a plus. They can claim to support any part they like and distance themselves from or outright condemn any part they don’t like or they think now makes them look bad.

They don’t even have to admit to not reading all of it, in order to condemn it — they can say “it was all or nothing, and we had to compromise”. The problem isn’t the size, that is a consequence or symptom, the problem is mixing so lumping so many unrelated items together. Or to quote Pelosi “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it”, to be fair she might have been referring to what the Senate would do with it. But even if so, that is just another symptom of the same problem. When you have a several thousand pages of unrelated law, it’s easy to slip in another paragraph or two.

Is it known who wrote the various parts of it? Is there a person who has read the entire document?

No and most likely eventually. Is there a politician that has read the whole thing? Unknown.

• This could be true, or could be completely made-up. I've never heard a congressperson defend themself by saying "I voted for it, but I didn't read that part". o.m.'s answer already claims no one reads the whole thing, because they talk to someone who's read each part. Does your senator brag about never reading bills? Can you give a quote? (I once heard Bob Dole on C-SPAN say "it may stink, who cares. Reagan wants it so we vote for it"). – Owen Reynolds Dec 29 '20 at 1:50
• @OwenReynolds: I don’t need to give a quote, you just did it for me. “It may stink” is an admission of ignorance, ie Bob Dole didn’t read it, but he voted for it because he thought Reagan wanted it. – jmoreno Dec 29 '20 at 2:10
• In Dole's case they had read it. Part authorized advanced jets for sale to Saudi Arabia which everyone thought was stupid. That Pelosi quote didn't mean she didn't read it. It meant that citizens would only "see" it and hopefully like it once it was put into effect (snopes.com/fact-check/…) – Owen Reynolds Dec 29 '20 at 2:34
• @OwenReynolds: From snopes ** Her contention was that the Senate “didn’t have a bill.” And until the Senate produced an actual piece of legislation that could be matched up and debated against what was passed by the House, no one truly knew what would be voted on. “So, that’s why I was saying we have to pass a bill, so we can see, so that we can show you, what it is and what it isn’t,” Pelosi continued. “It is none of these things. It’s not going to be any of these things.”** – jmoreno Dec 31 '20 at 1:29

You can't.

It's just a bureaucratic nightmare.

You can make approximations such as having teams of people and top level summaries. But at the end of the day, it's not possible for the entirety of that meaning to be summarised.

They do not, it is hard to recap the entire Swamp documentary in one answer, but basically most congressmen are cowards that do what the leadership tells them. They do not read the bills and do as told by the leadership.

If they do not there are consequences(they get blocked from funding and are mostly out of congress soon). And leadership is influenced by lobbies.

This answer is based on Swamp documentary, you can find a piece of it here.