Why your lawmakers don’t read every bill before they vote

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Lawmakers say they simply cannot read through every page of every bill they’re asked to consider each session.

So, they devise their own systems, of sorts, for managing all that paper.

"It was kind of intimidating, when you first come up here. Then you get used to it,” said Iowa Senate Bill Clerk Jay Mosher. Mosher works, crammed with an overwhelming amount of paper, in a tiny room behind the floor of the senate, which he thinks used to be a coat room.

Now, 21 years after he started, people call Mosher the “King of the Senate bill room.”

"I never ever get a paper cut and I don’t know why that is. I farmed too many years, I think.  My hands are tough,” said Mosher.

Across the rotunda you’ll find Joan Skeffington, in a similar setup, in the House’s bill room.

“We just try to match the tags with the bill; it helps us to find it faster,” said Skeffington.

Mosher and Skeffington have to keep track of the bills, but it’s the lawmakers who have to read through them.

Except, they don’t.

"It's kind of overwhelming when you first go in, ten thousand bills. I can't read ten thousand bills,” said Rep. Don Moffit, a Republican from Galesburg who has been in office for more than 20 years.

The Illinois House introduced 6,013 bills in their most-recent session. The Illinois Senate introduced more than 3,000 bills in their session. In Iowa, more than 3,000 bills were introduced in the House and more than 2,000 in the Senate in just one session.

Each bill is, typically, 20 to 100 pages thick.

Former Iowa Senator Maggie Tinsman says, when she took office, she wanted to be a generalist who knows a little bit about everything. She learned, though, that the legislative system would force her to specialize.

“There were sometimes 3,000 bills and you had to specialize,” said Tinsman.

Moffitt and other lawmakers say they don’t read every single page.

"Time usually does not permit the opportunity to read every page of every single bill, and there’s probably not the need to,” said Rep. Moffitt.

The bigger the issue, the bigger the bill, and sometimes loopholes get tucked into those pages. Those loopholes can go undetected.

"We do have to go back from time to time and correct something,” said Moffitt.

Even high-impact legislation, like the budget, doesn’t get much actual time from legislators.

"We don't even get an hour once that budget is all put together, and that's a concern, that we're voting on something that important and we haven't had a chance to look at that finished product,” said Moffitt.

So, they rely on each other and on other staff members.

“We have staff that prepares an analysis of each bill that’s coming before us, so we get a lot of background, a lot of information we can learn about; do some further research, find out who’s for it, who’s against it, the reason for its introduction, what they’re hoping to do,” Moffitt said.

Some would argue many of the overwhelming number of bills aren’t even necessary from the start.

"That's debatable,” said Iowa Representative Jim Lykam, a Democrat from Davenport. “You’ll hear them arguing on the floor, ‘Well, we're going to pass this bill,’ but that's nothing more than coat clutter.

“But every bill is important to some constituents, no matter what that might be,” said Iowa Representative Jim Lykam (D) Davenport.

"Some senators never introduce a bill. They react to other bills very well. Then, we’ve got some senators who think their day is not complete unless they've submitted a bill or two,” said Mosher.

Mosher says the end of the session lets him return to his farm for the summer – until the next session, the next stack of bills and the hours spent counting.

“If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t come back,” said Mosher.