Yesterday, the Democrats in the House of Representatives had a five-hour “tutorial” on the current draft of HR 3200, the health-care bill. (Click that link with caution; it’s a PDF with over 1,000 pages.)
The idea, it seems, was to help House Democrats come to grips with details of the bill.
Joel Achenbach’s article in this morning’s Washington Post says about 180 members participated (out of the 256 Democrats), and 120 “have been in there throughout,” according to the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. *
What got my attention was the idea and its structure:
- House staffers led members though the sections of the bill.
- For the first 2 1/2 hours, members “couldn’t even ask questions.”
- Some had a printout of the entire bill; others used a 34-page summary.
- The caucus apparently supplemented with bill with a packet that included things like a health-care glossary.
- Starting around 7 p.m., a question-and-answer session lasted two hours.
As I read the article, I thought at first I’d rather cut the grass on the National Mall with nail scissors than sit through two and a half hours of “teaching.” And there’s the silliness of remarks like Congressman Kildee of Michigan, who compared the session to “Having people sit there like a graduate class in a great university — without being able to interrupt a professor — very unusual.”
Thinking further, I see some less obvious nuances:
- Some members (who will still need to vote on the bill) chose not to attend; presumably they’ll learn the details in some other fashion.
- The content-delivery half of the session may have had some value for members; they’d be covering more than six pages a minute, which implies a focus on the highlights.
- The “learning goals” were not only for individual members to grasp details of the bill, but for them to collaborate in crafting it and in passing it.
If politics is (sometimes) the art of compromise, then collaborative learning is sometimes the craft of laying aside your preferred mode of taking in information–for example, agreeing to formats that allow many people in a large group to attend to basics in a limited time.
I’m not advocating this as the ideal method. Still, I’ve worked in a number of large organizations, and sometimes you have to do what’s pragmatic.
Nothing will prevent members from spending more time with the bill, in the ways that seem best to them–though I suspect more than a few will come to value the five hours spent in the Tuesday tutorial.
* For readers outside the U.S.: the House of Representatives has 435 members; 256 are Democrats, 178 are Republicans, and one seat is vacant. In theory the Democrats could pass the bill on their own, but are somewhat divided on the details.