Senate Republicans haven’t yet reviewed the House tax bill yet, so don’t ask them about it.
It’s the same response members routinely give to reporters seeking feedback from lawmakers on major pieces of legislation that become public.
Thursday’s release of the House tax measure was no different. Senators said they hadn’t yet read the bill, but also noted their own legislation will be different and the details in the House measure might not matter as much.
Still, a few had specific issues with it.
“Pass-throughs have got to be fixed. You’ve got to reflect reality. You’ve got to treat true pass-through income as a pass-through income,” Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson said of income from entities such as partnerships and LLCs. He added that he hadn’t yet looked closely at the bill.
Many said they already had staff reading or planning to delve into the legislation themselves this weekend. Members will have ample opportunity to do that, as the Senate again ended their weekly work in the Capitol early on Thursday afternoon.
But the response also gets to a sometimes overlooked aspect of the legislative process: how a lawmaker actually forms an opinion on a particular measure.
How it starts
Most major pieces of legislation these days are accompanied by flashy press conferences, where lawmakers might bring up constituents affected by the bill, members of trade groups that back the specific measure or their colleagues who support the proposal as a way to show the force behind it.
But that is just the beginning. Once the television cameras leave and the real legislative process begins, members are faced with understanding — sometimes in short order — often complex bills that could affect massive aspects of the U.S. economy and affect nearly every American household, such as taxes and health care.
Lawmakers are pestered almost immediately to give overarching opinions of the legislation or highlight areas of disagreement. This is when a senator will punt and tell reporters they still need to review the bill.
What that means varies, member to member.
Some read on the flights back to their home states. Others on the treadmill at night. Some read the entire bill, others just the summary. Most say they only bother to read those measures that the Senate is taking up or ones that fall within their respective committees. Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy is an outlier — he said he even read the roughly 2,300 pages of the 2010 health care law.
But there is one thing that remains consistent: Their staff matters.
Lawmakers say they rely on their staff to do initial reads of the bill, and determine the actual changes being proposed to current law and the effect of each provision.
“I assign a staff person to start wading through the bill and the secondary materials and ask them to write me a memo. At the same time, I dive in myself. I try to read the bill,” said Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, a freshman Republican.
Kennedy added that he has a file of materials he needs to read when he travels back to Louisiana or when he heads home in the evenings in Washington. Sen. Tim Scott had a similar approach. The South Carolina Republican spends half the plane ride home reading, and the full time on the way back.
Many say they rely on section-by-section summaries and analyses, given the complexity of the legalese in actual legislative text.
“If you’ve read legislation language, it’s difficult to read,” Cassidy said. “I do try and read it. Sometimes, I delegate to staff aspects of it. It depends upon the relative importance and my role in writing it.”
“Trying to read the legislation sometimes sounds easy. It’s actually better to read the explanations,” West Virginia GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito said. “Legislation always refers back to the tax code or the other code, so it’s difficult to know exactly.”
Reviewing the bill also means soliciting input from key stakeholders, which, for many, means those who carry substantial weight in their state, from government officials to CEOs of major companies.
“Sending out to people within my state that this would directly affect, asking their inputs. Obviously, they’ve got to talk to their lawyers and such,” Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford said, adding that the entire review process usually takes at least three days.
For the pending tax overhaul, Republicans say they are confident they will know what is in the final product — despite the Senate Finance Committee managing negotiations on the bill in secret — because the broad policies have been discussed across the conference.
Meanwhile, it may be weeks before any actual legislative text is available. When the Finance panel marks up a bill, it uses what is called the “chairman’s mark,” which essentially amounts to a broad summary of the legislation.
But despite the information shared thus far, members still voiced frustration with the broad presentations given, with just a few summary details included.
“I hope God punishes someday whoever invented PowerPoints, because they’re just not helpful,” Kennedy said.