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Just Read the Bill:

First there was ReadtheBill.org. Now there's Just Read the Bill, Already! Could this be a trend?

Donna B. (mail) (www):
I am appalled that bill can contain so many pages, but I am more appalled that our representatives and senators do not read what they pass into law.

That is the most egregious sin against their responsibilities to me... that they bind me to something they do not themselves comprehend.
6.28.2009 8:51pm
NicholasV (mail):
If they aren't going to read it before they vote, I don't know why they even bother trying to write it first.

Why not just vote on whether the concept of a bill which does X is a good idea, then worry about coming up with a bill that does X later? Wouldn't that be a lot easier?
6.28.2009 9:00pm
Psalm91 (mail):
Why didn't Boehner read the entire amendment when he had the chance?
6.28.2009 9:00pm
Brooks Lyman (mail):
NicholasV -

The point is, that they don't generally write it; their staff and committee staffs write the bills, with some guidance from the legislators. And some bills are written by lobbyists or other concerned citizens groups and given to some legislator to trow into the hopper.

I think that many bills are far too complex; they try to cover too much ground and close all the possible loopholes. The result is that we have all sorts of laws on the books which few people are aware of, until they get bit by them.

That's not to say that the above mentioned paths to legislation are always bad, but the legislators (this is by no means only a federal problem) need to read the damned things first - not only before they vote on them, but (in the case of sponsors) before they even throw them in the hopper....
6.28.2009 9:30pm
Pro Natura (mail):


An invaluable service of the Library of Congress where you can read current federal legislation

About seven years ago, I was consulting on criminal justice and national security issues in Washington. It was the first time I'd actually had to read proposed legislation. It was an eye-opener to say the least. Major legislation in it's raw form is basically incomprehensible. It usually consists of a set of editing instructions for exiting law, e.g., "In 51 USC Section 35 Part 14, Paragraph 3 Replace the sentence beginning 'For purposes of this paragraph...' with ...."

Even congressional staffers are usually only cognizant of those sections of a major bill that they've been intimately involved in crafting. No one really understands in detail the full import of a bill.

The Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress produces summaries of legislation and comparisons of current law with the law that would arise if a bill were enacted (I believe these are called something like side-by-sides). These are usually only available to Senators and Congressmen and their staffs. Even reading these summaries can be a major job. The basic problem is that federal law has become too unwieldy and too intrusive. We need a reform on the level of Justinian's Code to restore any semblance of rationality and manageability.
6.28.2009 9:33pm
smitty1e:
Please! This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let's not bicker and argue over who killed whose Constitution.
6.28.2009 10:23pm
NicholasV (mail):
Brooks, oh I agree. I was just pointing out how ludicrous it is to vote on a bill that one hasn't read yet. It's functionally no different to voting on a bill that doesn't exist yet. In neither case do you actually know what you are voting for.

If I had a chance to set up a new country with a fresh constitution I think I would impose an arbitrary limit on the size of any given bill (probably stated as a number of words) as well as the number of words in the total body of law. It's silly to have a set of law so large that no one person can understand it. I think I would also require one day per page between the introduction of a bill and the vote on it, with any modified page adding an extra day to that period.

Of course if you're setting up a system of government to benefit the legislators and lobbyists rather than the people, it would probably look at lot like the US Congress does today.
6.28.2009 10:27pm
Volokh Groupie:
I'll complain from the other side. Not only does the 300 pg addition mean that W-M was likely gutted even more to the point of impotence on the actual environmental impact, but I guarantee it also burned important bridges on both the left and right with its secrecy and with what is likely complicating an already complicated bill.

What W-M has essentially been reduced to is environmental lip service that in actuality will only raise some revenue for the government and fatten more lawyers' pockets. A Carbon tax has so many advantages to the bill that it's mind blowing it wasn't seriously considered, even if it has to be given some type of Lakoff-ian title to make it more acceptable to the public.
6.28.2009 10:31pm
cboldt (mail):
-- The Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress produces summaries of legislation and comparisons of current law with the law that would arise if a bill were enacted (I believe these are called something like side-by-sides). These are usually only available to Senators and Congressmen and their staffs. --
.
Not so. Those are public, and generally timely. CRS Summary for HR 2454
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Plug in the session of Congress (now 111) and Bill number, in this form, and get to a concise "index" to all sorts of information about a bill. http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d111:H.R.2454:
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I don't know if the Obama administration provides policy statements, but the Bush Administration did, and those summaries were outstanding for obtaining a view of the points of contention.
6.28.2009 10:31pm
Thoughtful (mail):
Coming soon!

www.YouShouldHaveReadTheBill.org...
6.28.2009 10:46pm
George Weiss (mail) (www):
cboldt

true they are sometimes timely.

the CRS summery which incorporates the 300 page amendment is not yet available..though the bill passed the house with the amendment.
6.28.2009 10:52pm
Grobstein (mail) (www):
Note that if legislators were (somehow!) required to read all bills passed into law, they would just withdraw into precatory vagaries, and leave all the detail to bureaucrats. We'd just see a massive increase in delegation.
6.28.2009 10:52pm
anothercommenter:
The idea that a legislator could vote on a bill without first reading it is like a voter going into a voting booth and voting for a candidate without first personally reading all of the candidate's position papers and press releases.

Sure, the legislator could read a summary of the bill, or be told about it, just like a voter could read a summary of the candidate's positions, or hear about it from the media. But we all know that there is no substitute for sitting down with the raw materials and working through them ourselves.
6.28.2009 11:04pm
Steve:
Hey, that's a good analogy.
6.28.2009 11:11pm
cboldt (mail):
-- the CRS summery which incorporates the 300 page amendment is not yet available..though the bill passed the house with the amendment. --
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My seat of the pants impression is that the more contentious the bill (or amendment), the less likely it was to be online before the vote.
.
The general proposition, that CRS summaries are usually available only to Senators and Congressmen and their staffs, is false. Perhaps it's helpful for readers to have a map for getting to that sort of material for summaries they feel like reviewing for themselves. By making a habit of looking, I quickly learned which bills and amendments were more likely to contain contentious law - they were the ones that did not appear online before the vote.
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I'll caution that the summaries can miss the really juicy stuff buried in the weeds of statutory language.
6.28.2009 11:14pm
Kirk:
How about rtfb.com ?
6.28.2009 11:22pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
Kirk: I like that. If only...
6.29.2009 12:47am
Brian G (mail) (www):
I agree with Grobstein. Why should we expect them to know what they are voting for? Al Gore says it will save the world. That's all anyone should need to know.

I personally can't wait for the cost to be passed on to me because I feel awful that I am not giving the government enough of my money.
6.29.2009 2:01am
Sarcastro (www):
I hate Congress and will insist they do useless things! When they refuse this allows me to hate them more!

Thus, I beat Congress.
6.29.2009 2:39am
DaveJD (mail) (www):
C'mon people. Congresspeople have staffs full of lawyers. This stuff isn't that hard if a) you have time to dedicate, b) you know how to read legislation, and c) you have a general knowledge of the subject area. Staffers and lobbyists have all three of those. In engineering, science, business, and, yes, government, humans have evolved systems of information management that allows decisonmaking on complex matters. I realize that may be hard to comprehend for some...

I'm amazed at the number of commenters that would like to see a nation of over 300 million people run like a town in Vermont. A constitutional word-limit on legislation? Really? Who are you people?

There was a time when comments on this site were made by intelligent and well-informed people, both lawyers and non-lawyers. I was randomly looking through this comment thread from 2006 and was struck by how substantive and well informed the comments were. I poked around looking at others in the archives and it was more of the same. I went back to modern threads, and the difference was crystal clear. More and more it seems that the informed commentariat died off (was run off?) and the hardcore libertarian/conservative bloviation crowd took over. That's a shame, because the comments in some of the old threads often contained more enlightening info than the posts themselves.

Not much can be done about it... like they say, opinions are like a--holes, and even I got one of those. Just a thought.
6.29.2009 3:31am
donaldk2 (mail):
Were these bills scrutinized in Committee?
6.29.2009 4:26am
quick weight loss diet (mail) (www):
How can i calculate/ understand trend of the market or perticular script for trading in stock market? Is there any method to calculate change of trend of stock ? Pl, let me know
6.29.2009 4:44am
The River Temoc (mail):
Why not just vote on whether the concept of a bill which does X is a good idea, then worry about coming up with a bill that does X later? Wouldn't that be a lot easier?

When it comes to amendments, the Senate Finance Committee (and maybe some other committees; I'm not sure) does just that. The practice is called a "conceptual amendment."
6.29.2009 4:57am
The River Temoc (mail):
A Carbon tax has so many advantages to the bill that it's mind blowing it wasn't seriously considered

This is false.
6.29.2009 5:00am
The River Temoc (mail):
DaveJD: thank you. Your post was a breath of reality and fresh air.

All the people grandstanding about this topic are thinking like lawyers (unsurprisingly, admittedly, for a blawg), not business people.

The decisionmaking process of business people tends to be to focus in on the key issues driving a certain problem, and to let the lawyers iron out the details.

If a CEO or CFO had to read every single sentence of a merger agreement or prospectus, deals would never get done. They wouldn't be able to comment intelligently on things like legends or selling restrictions, anyway. It's a waste of their time to read them. For the really important issues — consideration, covenants, risk factors, etc. — they do read the key sections of the underlying documentation. Most of the time, that's perfectly sufficient.

Yes, as with anything, this can go too far. I was once a bit taken aback by someone who insisted he couldn't be bothered to read a five-page background memo because it was longer than three paragraphs. But then again, President Eisenhower basically did the same thing.

Applying all this to the legislative process, it would be an utter waste of time for a representative to wade through pages and pages of technical fixes necessitated by a given policy shift. Do you really want your senator piecing together conforming language, rather than meeting with real, live constituents, policy experts, and so on?

We elect our representatives to consider the broad merits of the policy shift, not the merits of legalese. That is what staff and the Senate/House Legislative Counsel are for. And I can assure you that committee staff, legislative counsel, key personal staff, and likely the majority and minority leader's staff have scrutinized the bill thoroughly.

Quit acting as though lawyers are the universe's most exhaulted life forms. There's a reason people hate them.
6.29.2009 5:18am
The River Temoc (mail):
There was a time when comments on this site were made by intelligent and well-informed people, both lawyers and non-lawyers. I was randomly looking through this comment thread from 2006 and was struck by how substantive and well informed the comments were.

Just so. I started reading this blog not only because of the quality of posts by the Conspirators, but because of the quality of comments -- which used to be the highest of any blog I can think of. No more.

The solution is more intensive moderation, not closing down threads to comments. The latter just makes me lose interest in the blog.
6.29.2009 5:20am
The River Temoc (mail):
I looked at the "Read the Bill" website, which essentially advocates a constitutional amendment along the lines of the following:

"Before voting on any Bill, a Senator or Representative shall certify to the President of the Senate or Speaker of the House respectively that they have read the Bill in full."

The problem with all this, of course, is that it doesn't mandate that representatives *understand* the bill -- merely that they have read it. And wading through 300 pages of legalese and technical fixed is only going to distract them from the real policy issues underlying the bill.
6.29.2009 5:26am
NicholasV (mail):
"A constitutional word-limit on legislation? Really? Who are you people?"

Somebody who doesn't like a bloated, self-serving government. A believer in a limited role for government. A libertarian, I suppose you could say.
6.29.2009 7:08am
The River Temoc (mail):
Out of curiosity, NicholasV, how are you ever going to pass a defense appropriations bill with your precious constitutional word limit on legislation? Perhaps by coding it in binary?
6.29.2009 7:25am
NicholasV (mail):
I don't see why a defense appropriations bill has to go into excruciating detail. I also don't see why so many expenditures have to be stacked into a single bill which then goes for a single yes/no vote. I'd break it down into more, smaller bills, so that there's a better chance that the unwise items can be voted down in isolation. I'd also probably let DoD staff make more of the finer detailed decisions. They can be given limited budgets to spend in various ways (vehicle procurement, aircraft procurement, weapons, uniforms, training, base facilities, etc. etc.) and then decide how best to allocate that money.

I don't understand why the status quo is necessarily the optimal situation and somehow changing the way business is done by the government is going to be such a terrible thing.

Anyway I can see I'm not welcome here, fresh ideas are not wanted and are in fact ridiculed, so I'll stop wasting my time commenting here. Enjoy the resulting "high quality" discussions.
6.29.2009 7:42am
The River Temoc (mail):
I'd also probably let DoD staff make more of the finer detailed decisions.

So in other words, you are not really a libertarian, since you would remove the one democratic check on defense spending; you would place the power of the purse in completely unelected representatives.

Do you really think letting Donald Rumsfeld make decisions about force structure, without congressional input, is such a brilliant idea?

I don't see why a defense appropriations bill has to go into excruciating detail.

Because under the constitution, Congress has the power of the purse?

I don't understand why the status quo is necessarily the optimal situation and somehow changing the way business is done by the government is going to be such a terrible thing.

This is an utter strawman, since no one has argued that the status quo is always the optimal situation, or that change is always a terrible thing.

We *were* discussing the merits of *your specific* reform proposal, namely that there ought to be some constitutional word limit on legislation.

And when people point out deficiencies in your argument, your response is to claim some kind of persecution complex.

Next?
6.29.2009 8:12am
martinned (mail) (www):

Because under the constitution, Congress has the power of the purse?

...which means that they get to set the total amount of spending (and taxing). Beyond that, they can go into as much detail as they like. I'm not sure if the budget is the place to start simplifying, or, if one is going to simplify the budget, whether the defense budget would be the place to do it, but it is certainly not a ridiculous suggestion. Nor a particularly libertarian one, either...
6.29.2009 8:25am
Ben P:

I'd break it down into more, smaller bills, so that there's a better chance that the unwise items can be voted down in isolation.



Somehow I'm seeing this resulting in Soldiers with shirts and pants but not boots, because there's a boot factory in Senator X's home state and he was pissed that they didn't get the contract over someone else last time so he blocks the bill in committee. If you really think senators aren't this petty, you're probably being somewhat naive.


ok, that's a silly example but it illustrates one of the relevant points. Bills are typically long because they incorporate entire organized plans (and provide guidance on those). Splitting them up allows even more of the vagaries of politics to take over.

And, in all honesty, if you did that, all you'd probably see is rather than issuing "House appropriations Bill 001" they would issue "Bundled Appropriations bills containing CR 001-921" which would be introduced onto the floor en masse.

Who's gonna stop it? An average person probably wouldn't have standing to object to legislative purpose because there's not an identifiable harm. A legislator might, but remember the dispute over Judges in the senate a couple years back and the "nuclear option?"

Remember what made it "nuclear?" It was the fact that if republicans passed the rule to disallow filibusters for judges, Democrats argued they would stop supporting consent votes for procedural issues, meaning the senate would have to actually vote on regular procedural issues rather than the chair passing them by consent.
6.29.2009 8:34am
rosetta's stones:
"And, in all honesty, if you did that, all you'd probably see is rather than issuing "House appropriations Bill 001" they would issue "Bundled Appropriations bills containing CR 001-921" which would be introduced onto the floor en masse."

And voted on uniquely, so that each congresscritter would be accountable for - a - vote on - a - bill (which he may or may not have read), and can't hide behind the nonsense that "the John Murtha memorial golf course is for the troops", or "the honey bee subsidies and ethanol are for the children".

And if the boots don't get to the soldiers on the front line, then somebody's gonna wanna know why, and by whose action. This is a bit of a strawman you've created here.

Generically, work is always best performed if broken down into its subparts. Always. Complexity is the enemy of efficiency and just about everything else for that matter. And I'm not even talking about the devious manuevering and pie cutting that is at the root of the complexity in COngressional lawmaking currently.

It's being done to split up the pie, and to create more pie to be split. Less complexity and more accountability dampens both the piemaking and the piesplitting.
6.29.2009 9:01am
SMatthewStolte (mail):
I wonder if arguing that Congress should read the Bills it passes might not be the most efficient way of getting them to do it. Why not just slip a provision into one of those massive bills that no one reads?
6.29.2009 9:13am
martinned (mail) (www):

Why not just slip a provision into one of those massive bills that no one reads?

= Earmarks.
6.29.2009 9:17am
Ben P:

And if the boots don't get to the soldiers on the front line, then somebody's gonna wanna know why, and by whose action. This is a bit of a strawman you've created here.


The question is, does that somebody live in the same congressional district as the guy who blocks the provision? And is that more or less important than keeping the local shoe factory (whose owner happens to make substantial political contributions) alive.


I feel like I'm being pushed into arguing for something I'm not really for. I do think the waiting periods another transparency measures would be an outstanding idea, but I also think that any attempt to limit the political bargaining process that occurs in congress is likely to be stunningly unsuccessful.
6.29.2009 9:39am
ArthurKirkland:
I endorse the contributions of DaveJD and RiverTemoc. Some members of Congress were insurance agents, veterinarians, heirs, market researchers, nightclub owners, baseball pitchers, or entertainers. I prefer diversity (non-lawyers) such as this, but is a former actor or baseball player or nightclub owner going to accomplish much by certifying the reading of hundreds of pages of fine print?
6.29.2009 9:48am
rarango (mail):
What amazes me is why this is even an issue; People that complain about the process ought to at least know how the process actually works, becuase this is the way it has worked for a long time, under both democrats and republicans.

As for the cap and trade? I am much too old to care how you younger folks are going to stuck with the consequences, because I will be long dead--In the interim, just keep paying your continually increasing taxes so you can fund my retirements, pensions and medicare--I love you all!
6.29.2009 9:51am
rosetta's stones:
The question is, does that somebody live in the same congressional district as the guy who blocks the provision? And is that more or less important than keeping the local shoe factory (whose owner happens to make substantial political contributions) alive.

If the district's voters want soldiers to go unshod, then within our system, those voters get to support that (Until the shoe industry goes bankrupt and Obama nationalizes them, that is.). I highly doubt that any district in the country will do so, but we'll never know unless the system becomes far less complex than it is.



"...I also think that any attempt to limit the political bargaining process that occurs in congress is likely to be stunningly unsuccessful."

I doubt anything will limit political bargaining, which will take place within any structure, and probably should. What is required is a decrease in the limits on accountability, as the current process discourages accountability.

No problem with horsetrading, but let's have a clear look at those horses, and the traders, and the trades.
6.29.2009 10:05am
SMatthewStolte (mail):

People that complain about the process ought to at least know how the process actually works, becuase this is the way it has worked for a long time, under both democrats and republicans.

I think that many who hear something about the process for the first time are just shocked. The thought runs through the mind that, "that's not right." I don't think this is an illegitimate thought, even though we may not be familiar with the process. In some ways, those voices are very important.

Consider an old church, cluttered with mismatched, donated furniture, and paint fading or peeling here or there. Those inside the church have grown accustomed to these things, and they never talk about it. But someone who does not know the church will see them immediately, even though he knows almost nothing else about the church.

Something similar may be going on with those folks who complain without knowing the legislative process on the ground. However, you are quite right that no one should presume to impose a solution to these problems without a firm grasp of the process. The problems that would be created by some of these solutions may make them far too costly. But perhaps this ought to be an occasion for those in the know to start brainstorming better solutions.
6.29.2009 10:10am
Laura(southernxyl) (mail) (www):
The idea that a legislator could vote on a bill without first reading it is like a voter going into a voting booth and voting for a candidate without first personally reading all of the candidate's position papers and press releases.

Sure, the legislator could read a summary of the bill, or be told about it, just like a voter could read a summary of the candidate's positions, or hear about it from the media. But we all know that there is no substitute for sitting down with the raw materials and working through them ourselves.


Well, there is a bit of a difference. Yes, it could be argued that an informed voter does all of that stuff. But that's a significant investment of time, and most of us have day jobs. But for congresspeople, that IS their job. What else do they have to do, besides schmooze with lobbyists?

I agree that a congressperson should and in most cases probably does have a staff of knowledgable, experienced people who can break that 300-page document dump down into manageable portions, read it, and highlight any problematic portions for the congressperson to make a decision about, without that one person having to read the whole thing. Do I think they always do? Hm.
6.29.2009 12:18pm
Dan Weber (www):
courtesy CNN:

On Tuesday, Dodd denied to CNN that he had anything to do with the adding of [the bonus loophole provision].
...

... Dodd told CNN's Dana Bash and Wolf Blitzer Wednesday that he was responsible for adding the bonus loophole into the stimulus package that permitted AIG and other companies that received bailout funds to pay bonuses.

At least our Senators are ashamed when they are caught not even knowing about the legislation their own office produces.
6.29.2009 12:28pm
another cynic:
No, I don't expect them to read every word, and as some commenters have noted, corporate execs don't read every prospectus and deal document.

However, those businesses generally have some system in place when they delegate. How often does a CEO discover, after the fact, that "What? I didn't just sign a new lease for a plant? I sold all our assets for ten bucks to a competitor?" They may make lousy decisions (betting the bank on mortgage-backed securities), but not because the substance was buried and unknown to the decisionmakers.

Look at the "consumer safety" law. Congress essentially outlawed old books and clothes and bikes and all sorts of stuff, and no one noticed. Ho hum.
6.29.2009 3:38pm
Bryan C (mail):

No, I don't expect them to read every word, and as some commenters have noted, corporate execs don't read every prospectus and deal document.


Not to pick on your analogy, but I think it's important to note that legislators are not executives. That's what the President is for.


People that complain about the process ought to at least know how the process actually works, becuase this is the way it has worked for a long time, under both democrats and republicans.


I'm willing to cut the legislators some slack and allow them to delegate some of their duties to their staff, so it's not that "process" itself that bothers me. But the most pragmatic of processes can become harmful when taken to an extreme, and that's what seems to have happened here. They're taking it all on faith, and there's absolutely no good reason for such haste. Congress is supposed to be deliberative, slow, and inefficient. I'd be thrilled if a read-the-bill measure slowed them down. That's not a bug, it's a feature.
6.29.2009 4:10pm

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