GOP’s Ron Johnson turned 628-page coronavirus bill into required reading

This dilatory tactic is not new. Senators have deployed this gambit before as a form of protest

You could have spent Thursday afternoon and evening thumbing through 601 pages of "East Of Eden" by John Steinbeck. There you would have read about the push for acceptance and travails of the Trask and Hamilton families.

If Steinbeck isn’t your jam, maybe you could have explored interplanetary fiefdoms in "Dune" by Frank Herbert. "Dune" clocks in at 661 pages.

Still, you could have visited the haunted, Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies, via Stephen King and "The Shining." 659 pages in King’s opus.

But maybe you’d prefer to take a recommendation from the Senate’s "Book of the Month Club."

The March offering came from Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.: "Calendar Number 10, H.R. 1319, An Act To Provide for Reconciliation Pursuant to Title II of S. Con. Res. 5."

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In other words, the sixth coronavirus relief bill.

Some excerpts:

"…would be entitled to receive sick leave as described in subsection (b), multiplied by 22 (B) the lesser of 23 (i) $200…."

"In the case of any employer who employs seasonal workers (as defined in section 45R(d)(5)(B)), the employer may elect to apply subparagraph (A)…"

"Additional allocations to support business enterprises…"

Republicans thought they lacked the votes to stop Democrats from passing the $1.9 trillion measure in the Senate over the weekend. But this is the Senate. Senators can stretch things out. Elongate the process. Often, just to make a point.

Johnson did just that Thursday. He required a trio of Senate clerks to verbally read all 628 pages of the final version of the COVID-19 bill from the dais. The process started at 3:21 p.m. Thursday. It’s unknown if the clerks sipped Early Gray tea spiked with honey or devoured Ricola throat lozenges to get them through the oral exercises. But they didn’t finish until 2:04 a.m. Friday.

"Forty percent shall be for grants…"

"The Fish and Wildlife Service…"

"…section 122 of the National and Community Service Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C 12572)…"

The clerks doubled as runners in a marathon, handing off their verbal batons to a colleague who would handle the next leg.

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One clerk read for 28 minutes and 40 seconds. Another for 25 minutes and 56 seconds. Another for 23 minutes and 45 seconds.

"In Section 3.00(b)…"

"$10 billion to remain available…."

"The Secretary of the Treasury shall…"

"I felt bad for the clerks who are going to have to read it. But it’s just so important," Johnson said. "So often we rush these massive bills that are hundreds, thousands of pages long. You don’t have time. Nobody has time to read them."

"So often we rush these massive bills that are hundreds, thousands of pages long."

— U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 16, 2020. (Associated Press)

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 16, 2020. (Associated Press)

"Federal medical assistance percentage under subsection (c) will be used to supplement and not supplant…"

"$13 million shall be deposited into the fund…"

"…is caring for a son or daughter where the school has been closed…"

"This is the same senator who at a Senate hearing on Capitol security was reading conspiracy theories into the record, saying that January 6th wasn’t an armed insurrection," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

"Public transit administration grants…."

"Not withstanding section…."

"The Secretary shall allot to such state the sum…"

Some basics about reading bills and amendments out loud on the floor:

Technically each bill gets three "readings." That’s where the clerk stands up and reads the bill out loud. The "third reading" is a signal that there’s about to be a vote.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, there was typically one copy of a bill, written in longhand. In the era of Xerox and computers, everyone has a copy. Bills are sometimes hundreds if not thousands of pages long.

In the early days of Congress, the only way members got to learn about the text of a bill was to hear it read out loud on the floor. In addition, some members 200 years ago were illiterate. And, if you missed the "first reading" because you were lying drunk in the tavern up the street from the Capitol, you still had two more "readings" to get up to speed.

In the early days of Congress, the only way members got to learn about the text of a bill was to hear it read out loud on the floor.

In the interest of time, the title of a bill or just a few words of an amendment are usually read out loud from the Senate dais. On almost every occasion, a senator asks "unanimous consent" to "dispense" with the reading.

And poof. It’s done. No more reading.

This happens like clockwork all day long in the Senate. It’s all very mechanical.

But, as we say, the Senate can make the sun rise in the West if it can obtain "unanimous consent." That means all 100 senators must agree. So in this case, all it takes is a solitary senator to object to dispensing with a reading - and the amendment or bill must be read out loud.

This dilatory tactic is not new. Senators have deployed this gambit before as a form of protest.

In the early 1990s, former Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif., required the Senate read an entire bill out loud. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., followed suit in 1996, requiring clerks to read most of an education bill with which he wasn’t pleased.

Some amendments to a bill are short. Just a sentence or so. Others consume several pages. When Johnson referred to having the Senate clerk "read the bill" out loud, he was actually talking about a special breed of amendment called a "substitute." This is where the entire bill text is swapped out for something brand new. And the 628-page "bill" was actually a "substitute" amendment offered by Schumer.

"Not otherwise appropriated…."

"Section 4005….."

"In the case of a joint return, the $2,800 amount in subsection (b)(1) shall be treated…"

The Senate wasn’t required to read the entire bill once Johnson started the process. The Wisconsin Republican could have asked unanimous consent that the clerks suspend the reading. And, if no senator on the floor objected to such a request, the Senate could have gotten on with debate on the bill. Or, if Johnson and other GOP "watchdogs" weren’t on the floor or were asleep at the switch, a Democrat could ask unanimous consent to end the reading. If Johnson or another GOP member failed to object, the reading would have ceased.

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But they read the entire substitute amendment. All 628 pages worth.

"I’m absolutely supportive," Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said of Johnson’s effort. "This is, we think, a nearly $2 trillion bill. This is not unreasonable."

Lankford said senators "need to be able to review it."

But listening to the clerk read legislative text out loud in the chamber isn’t how senators contemplate and consider issues before them. And they certainly didn’t take advantage of this opportunity Thursday night. What usually happens is legislative aides with particular policy expertise study relevant sections of a bill. Counsel pores over it. Only a few senators wandered through the chamber at all as the clerks read through the bill Thursday.

In short, there was a lot of reading. But very little listening.