Forbes' Senate Chamber Empties As Reading Of 628-Page Relief Bill Gets Underway begins

Senators vanished from the U.S. Senate chamber on Thursday as clerks begin reading the upper chamber’s 628-page coronavirus relief bill, with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), who objected to waiving its reading as a way to delay the process, chatting and looking at his phone during parts of the reading.

and includes:

  • Dozens of senators were present at the start of the reading, which was supported by a number of Senate Republicans who complain lawmakers have not had time to read the bill and that the bill is filled with excessive spending measures.

  • But those senators gradually filed out of the chamber within the first half hour of the reading, with Johnson remaining as the only senator in the chamber by the one-hour mark.

  • Johnson himself left the chamber at one point early in the reading, even after demanding Vice President Kamala Harris, who was presiding over the first part of the session, restore order when senators talked over the reading.

My understanding is that the objection to waiving the bill's reading is any senator's prerogative, and I assume that the original purpose of the reading was important, and that it came at a time before printers, copiers, large groups of staffers and personal electronics.

Question: Is there any actual statement of the original purpose of the reading aloud of a bill in the US Senate before voting, or was the need so obvious at the time that it didn't need to be stated? Were there originally rules requiring that anyone besides the individual(s) doing the reading to be present? Or to listen?

  • 4
    Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press 340 years before the US declared itself independent of British rule. The verbal reading of a bill or an amendment in front of the Senate has been a stalling tactic from day one. Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 10:44
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    Tangentially related: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/46950/… Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 14:32
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    "Johnson himself left the chamber at one point": is it biologically possible to sit through the reading of a 628-page bill?
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 15:12
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    @BenVoigt The question as written doesn't make sense. Have you ever been in a meeting where someone who after being asked a question asks "Can you repeat the question? I was multitasking." (Multitasking is shorthand for "I was not paying attention.") The only situation that I know of in Senate rules that somewhat require senator attention is an impeachment trial, and even then, the Senate can ask C-SPAN to turn off the cameras that normally point at senators sitting in the chamber, or at their empty seats. Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 19:13
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    Senators are sworn to act as impartial jurors in impeachment trials, and despite lack of cameras, they are well-documented to have doodled, to have read books on wars, or doing anything but paying attention. Normal rules do not and cannot require senators to pay attention, let alone be present. After all, the US Senate typically has multiple things happening simultaneously, from offering amendments to bills, voting on bills, holding committee / subcommittee meetings, and holding personal meetings with constituents, and sometimes with grifters. Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 19:15

2 Answers 2


The tradition of reading the bill goes back before the founding of the USA to the English Parliament. The medieval Parliament was composed of elected landowners (MPs), senior warlords (Barons) and senior clergy (Bishops). While clergy would be expected to be literate, the same could not be said of MPs or the Lords Temporal.

Moreover, the cost of producing copies of the bill would have been prohibitive at a time when ink, paper and parchment were luxury items and duplication would have to be done by a room full of monks with feather pens.

The procedure of reading the bill would be a simple and cost-effective way of ensuring that the contents of the bill were public, and everyone knew what the King was asking them to approve. That it exist now is just a hangover from the 1400s

  • So, at least in the US, the purpose has always been purely political?
    – divibisan
    Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 22:14
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    At least in the Westminster system the "reading" of the bill is limited to the title.
    – James K
    Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 22:18

I think this is just a part of standard parliamentary procedures. A bill is essentially a motion that the legislature modify the statutes in some way (or take some other official action). According to Robert's Rules of Order one of the first steps that a motion goes through (after being made and seconded) is "Stating the Question". This normally includes reading the resolution being proposed.

Of course, this is impractical when the bill is long, so we normally distribute bills to legislators in advance of the debate, and expect them to review them in private. But the traditional process persists as the default, and requires that it be waived to skip this step.

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