Much has been made of Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-OK) threat to force a full reading of the Senate health insurance reform bill on the floor, though it poses no particular threat to the bill's passage. It's just a way to kill some time and be annoying.
Should everyone who's interested read it? Sure. Should Senate resources be consumed forcing a clerk to read it to no one in particular? Probably not.
Conservative activists view the move as heroic, but I suppose that's a reflection of low expectations. The clerks will read it, and then... they'll finish.
Democrats, in return, say they'll force Republicans to stay on the floor continuously throughout the exercise. At least one Coburn ally will have to remain on the floor to object to unanimous consent requests to dispense with the reading. Whether they'll be able to require the presence of more than one Republican, though, remains to be seen.
Procedurally speaking, what's Coburn's actual play here? The Hill's report on his threat says only this:
Under Senate rules, any senator can demand that a bill be read before debate. Republicans, however, would have to stay on the floor the entire time to object to Democratic motions to stop the reading.
But here's what Senate rules say about reading bills:
Every bill and joint resolution shall receive three readings previous to its passage which readings on demand of any Senator shall be on three different legislative days, and the Presiding Officer shall give notice at each reading whether it be the first, second, or third: Provided,That each reading may be by title only, unless the Senate in any case shall otherwise order.
That's Rule XIV, and reading a bill by title means you don't read the whole text, but just the names of the titles, of which the Senate bill has just six:
TITLE I--HEALTH CARE COVERAGE
TITLE II--PROMOTING DISEASE PREVENTION AND WELLNESS
TITLE III--IMPROVING THE QUALITY AND EFFICIENCY OF HEALTH CARE
TITLE IV--TRANSPARENCY AND PROGRAM INTEGRITY
TITLE V--FRAUD, WASTE, AND ABUSE
TITLE VI--REVENUE PROVISIONS
Not much to read.
So what's everybody talking about?
Well, the problem starts in Title VI. The revenue provisions. Why? Remember Art. I, Sec. 7 of the Constitution:
All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.
That means the Senate has to resort to one of its favorite tricks in order to chime in with its own original proposals for revenue measures. That is, they can write the provisions, but need a House-originated vehicle to move them in order to be in technical compliance with Art. I, Sec. 7. So what they usually do is take a dormant House-passed bill that's awaiting Senate action, call it up, strip out the entire text of it, and amend it by offering their own bill as a substitute. That gives them their preferred revenue text, but puts it in a House-passed bill as an "amendment," even though it gets rid of everything the House wrote into it. In this case, they have the actual House-passed health insurance reform bill to use as a vehicle, and amending it will give them two versions of the same bill, and thus the opportunity after passage to immediately seek a conference with the House.
So why does that change anything? See Rule XV:
- (a) An amendment and any instruction accompanying a motion to recommit shall be reduced to writing and read and identical copies shall be provided by the Senator offering the amendment or instruction to the desks of the Majority Leader and the Minority Leader before being debated.
The Senate bill, though it currently carries its own designation as S. 1796, will be offered as an amendment to a House bill in order to be in compliance with the constitutional requirements regarding revenue bills. And the default rule on amendments is that they get read, and Rule XV doesn't say anything about reading it by title.
In the end, it's just not going to do that much. It won't take all that long to read it -- certainly not by comparison with how long it'll take to move it through the Senate. In the vast procedural toolkit available to Senators, it's probably the least interesting trick there is. Frankly, it was more interesting figuring out how he thought he'd be entitled to the reading than it's likely to be actually requiring it to go forward.
But that's the way Crossword Tommy rolls. He wasn't much interested in what was going on when Republicans were in the majority and he was assigned the task of presiding over debate. And now he's going to see to it that everybody spends a couple hours being as bored with the legislative process as he was.
Gosh. That's... really something.