Read the Bill — A Reply to Eric:

I have read with dismay Eric’s defense of the expectation that legislators should not read legislation upon which they will vote. I am dismayed because I think has adopted a caricature of the “Read the Bill” position, and because his post reflects an unrealistic account of how legislatures work that is contrary to my experience of the legislative process on Capitol Hill and after ten years of work for an interest group in Washington, D.C. (during which I was involved in drafting, commenting upon and analyzing legislative language with representatives and their staff, among other things), and because it presents an overly idealized view of the role of “experts” within our political system.

No one denies that an effective legislative process requires a “division of labor” or “delegation to trusted subordinates.” As I’ve already written below:

It is certainly appropriate for legislators to rely upon staff to draft legislation, review legislative proposals, and serve as a filter identifying bills that might be worthy of support, and so on.. Indeed, legislators could not do their jobs without such assistance. But this does not relieve legislators of reading those pieces of legislation that seek to enact.

The question, which is relevant in private firms as well as in public entities, is what the proper scope of such delegations should be and, to what extent, principals need to perform certain functions for themselves.

The fact of the matter is that most legislative staff spend relatively little of their time reading and seeking to understand proposed legislation, let alone the small fraction of proposed legislation that may actually come up for a vote. They spend most of their time drafting correspondence, committee reports, talking points, memoranda, and the like, reading the same, as well as responding to constituent requests, meeting with staff from other offices, communicating with agencies, and so on. Legislative counsels also spend a decent amount of time drafting legislation. Under what I have proposed, none of this would change. Most legislative staff would continue to spend the vast majority of their time the same way that they do now. Committees and committee staff would still do the bulk of the heavy lifting on issues within their jurisdiction.

Since the legislator is the principal, I believe the legislator must, at the end of the day, assure him or herself that a given piece of legislation does what it is intended to do, and have some understanding of how it will achieve that end. This does not require tremendous expertise, but it does require, at a minimum, reading the bill’s language (perhaps with the Ramseyer comparison already required in all House committee reports), meeting with more expert staff and, in many cases, hearing from experts. Is this too much to do for the small fraction of proposed legislation that may actually become law — that is, those pieces of legislation that pass committee and have a chance of a scheduled floor vote — hardly.

Two final points. First, Eric writes “political institutions are highly complex organizations that have evolved in response to needs and pressures.” This is true as a descriptive claim, but it is hardly a justification of these political institutions. Much of what has evolved is the result of special interest pressures, rent-seeking, and the interests of political officials in evading accountability and capturing rents of their own. A process in which bills can be proposed and voted upon before anyone has had time to read them, including legislators and their staffs (as when omnibus amendments are offered on the floor on the eve of final passage), rarely serves the interest of “good legislation.” It primarily serves those who seek either to push politically unpopular legislative changes or to enact targeted favors for prized constituencies. I’ve seen this first hand, and written up quite a few examples of the results. Does a “read the bill” obligation make all of this go away? Of course not. But it would make it harder for narrow interests to insert favors into highly complex bills, it would tend to encourage less complex legislation, and it would also further the goals of accountability and transparency. Legislators could be held accountable more easily, and the legislative process would be more transparent because if legislators had to have time to read the bills, then the interested public is more likely to have time to read legislation as well.

Second, I reject Eric’s claim that “simple rules rarely do any good in complex settings.” I am actually quite sympathetic to the opposite view, but that’s a discussion for another time. I have other things to attend to, including a lecture by former OIRA Adminsitrator Susan Dudley this afternoon.

[NOTE: I made a few edits to fix typos and awkward phrasings.]