Faced with legal time constraints and bills that can run on for pages, seeing multiple amendments, lawmakers can feasibly read less than 60 percent of the bills introduced, an analysis of legislative data shows.
Yet, most state lawmakers report having at least read the highlights of, if not studied in depth, every bill that passes each year. They aren't lying. A complex system allows state senators and representatives to make the impossible happen.
This is how they do it.
Citing legislative struggles from partisan politics to lobbying, Oklahoma lawmakers shared one particular criticism of the climate at the capitol that transcended all divisions - time constraints.
The 2019 legislative session begins Monday and state senators and representatives have introduced 2,773 bills. To see the true impact of that number, a random sample of 200 bills was pulled from the 3,330 bills introduced in 2018.
The median word count per bill was about 820, though the uppermost extreme was closer to 12,000. With each bill having between 1 and 8 versions, the averaged total word count was upwards of 5.5 million.
From the beginning of session Feb. 5 to the end of session May 24, legislators convened 64 days. On average they spent 8 hours a day at work, or 31,200 minutes.
According to a 2012 Forbes Magazine article the average adult reads at a speed of 300 words per minute. If legislators spent every single moment they are at work reading they should be able to read 9.3 million words in a single legislative session. They don't.
In sum, lawmakers could only feasibly read 58 percent of all the bills introduced in 2018 if they had spent every minute in session reading the legislation.
How it Works
When a bill is introduced, it first goes to the senate and house floor leaders. The floor leader looks at each bill, makes a decision about whether or not it will proceed, and then forwards it to the committee that handles the topic of legislation.
The committee chair looks at all the bills sent to their committee, and will also make cuts and condense multiple bills on the same topic into one.
One committee chair, Rep. Mark Lepak (R, Claremore), said, “I'll look at four bills on the same topic and I'll make a decision as the chairman that we are going to consider one bill and not these other three.”
He then compiles a list of the bills that will be heard in committee so that committee members can read and familiarize themselves with those.
For the first several weeks of session, legislators will primarily be engaged in their committee. Legislators are assigned to committees based on the expertise they bring to the table when they are elected to office. While in committee, they discuss the particulars of the bills, and decide as a group what will go to the floor.
“There are some bills that I will never have the opportunity to read because they were not assigned to a committee that I chair or that I serve on,” said Senator Marty Quinn (R, Claremore).
Those decisions are compiled into a daily agenda of 15 to 30 bills by the floor leader. The floor leader has the opportunity to make cuts again at this stage, because he or she sets the agenda for the house or senate.
The agenda is sent to all the members at least 24 hours in advance, giving them the opportunity to read the bills and ask questions.
There is also an opportunity to ask questions of the author when the bill is introduced on the floor. When the bill is introduced, the floor leader gives a synopsis and then turns to floor to the author to talk and answer questions. The question and answe segment goes on for as long as it takes for people to have their questions answered. When everyone is satisfied, they vote.
Another significant number of bills die at this stage. Those that continue on are sent to committee in the opposite chamber.
The same committee to floor process happens again, and the opposite branch gets to make a decision whether to pass or reject the bill.
This is complicated by votes to revive bills and occasions when bills have been volleyed between branches multiple times before dying or reaching the governor.
Very few bills, in comparison to the total introduced, get approved by both branches of the legislature and go to the governor's desk.
Fewer than that get signed into law.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” Quinn said.
What Legislators have to say about it
Several senators and representatives weighed in on how they've learned to manage the workload.
“Nobody is reading 3,000 bills,” Lepak said. Instead people read the bills in their committees and the ones that make it to the floor. Lepak compared it to doing homework.
Lepak said that his routine is to open the daily agenda when it arrives, find a quite spot to read, typically wherever he is renting a room for the night, and go through the bills one by one.
If he has questions, he makes a call to the author, committee chair, or even the legal services staff.
“We all have each other's phone numbers, so we call and say 'talk to me about this'” Lepak said.
“It's like doing your homework every day,” Lepak said. “You have to keep up, because there is a test every 24 hours.”
“Four months is a short time to propose and act on budgets and policy issues,” said Senator Julie Daniels (R, Bartlesville).
In order to tackle the responsibilities of legislating, Daniels said, “I spend the most time reading and studying bills and meeting or communicating with constituents.”
How much time depends on the legislative calendar and the number of bills introduced in committee.
“At the high end I spend five hours a day reading bills,” Daniels said. “At the low end, one hour.”
“I am not surprised by the stats,” said Rep. Carol Bush (R, Tulsa). “Sometimes I feel like I am in law school.”
Bush said she reads bills after dinner or wakes up at 4 a.m. to start reading. While she scans most bills, rereading sections that stick out, she said, “when it is a subject matter that is important to me like senior issues, public safety, budget or children's issues I spend time carefully reading, researching and asking the author questions to garner a better understanding before I vote.”
Some bills are simple, existing to clean up the language in a statute or to clarify the intent of the bill. Those bills are typically less than 300 words, and clearly highlight changes by striking or underlining the important text.
“Then there are comprehensive bills that require more attention and require you to collect information from many sources,” said Quinn. In these cases, Quinn and others not only talk to the bill's author and committee chair, but listen to the thoughts of constituents, lobbyists and experts.
Daniels is the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Quinn is the chair of the Senate Retirement and Insurance Committee. Lepak is the chair of the House Banking, Financial Services and Pensions Committee. And Bush is the chair of the House Children, Youth and Family Services Committee.
Legislators in leadership positions, especially, have to read several versions of the same bill. However, Daniels said, many versions of a bill are simply restoring or striking the title or enacting clause. They may be housekeeping amendments or “cleanup” or “repeal” bills.
“In other words, once I read and understand a given bill, the changes may require no more than a glance through the new language or a question to the author,” Daniels said.
A legislator's job is more than just reading.
They also have to write and defend their own legislation and meet with and respond to constituents.
Every legislator introduces anywhere from two to eight bills a year and sits on about four committees.
Quinn and other legislators meet with and respond to constituents regularly throughout the year.
“You represent 79,000 people. You have to be willing to listen to the many different issues that constituents bring and not isolate yourself into one segment of state government,” he said.
All four of the legislators said they work hard to listen and respond to every constituent concern in a timely manner.
“Other time commitments include: caucus meetings, appropriations committee meetings and budget hearings. These sometimes extend into the evening as do floor sessions during deadline weeks and towards the end of May,” Daniels said.
None of the legislators particularly complained about their lack of time. They simply wanted constituents to be aware of the realities of what they do on a given day.
“If you just stay focused on what's in front of you, the process works,” Lepak said.