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Read the Bills Before You Vote:

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer laughs at the idea they should read substantive legislation before they enact it. Jeff Jacoby doesn't think its funny.

Senators and representatives who vote on bills they haven't read and don't understand betray their constituents' trust. It is no excuse to say that Congress would get much less done if every member took the time to read every bill. Fewer and shorter laws more carefully thought through would be a vast improvement over today's massive bills, which are assembled in the dark and enacted in haste. Steny Hoyer chortles at the thought of asking members of Congress to do their job properly. It's up to voters to wipe the grin off his face.

Just Dropping By (mail):
I'm trying to recall: did Jacoby express similar outrage about the circumstances of the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act?
7.12.2009 9:58am
ruuffles (mail) (www):
It would be nice to enact legislation (or a constitutional amendment) requiring them to sign a statement, under penalty of perjury, attesting that they did indeed read the bill before they can vote for it. Lawyers take responsibility for documents they sign, even if they did not draft it themselves. Why not lawmakers?
7.12.2009 10:10am
SG:
I'm trying to recall: did Jacoby express similar outrage about the circumstances of the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act?

It's comments like this that make me despair for our polity. You'd think asking that our representatives read the bills before they pass them into law would be something that everyone could get behind, yet the very first comment is some ridiculous, evidence-free (and logically invalid) insinuation of hypocrisy.

And for the record, even if Jacoby didn't express outrage over the USA PATRIOT Act (and I have no knowledge one way or the other), it wouldn't be evidence of hypocrisy - you'd have to find him asserting that the bill should be passed irrespective if anyone has read it. Anything short of that, and silence in particular, fails to make him a hypocrite or even inconsistent.

And yet even if he were hypocritical on this issue, I can't see any reason on which to fault his current position. Certainly you didn't articulate one. Instead, it appears that your response to an reasonable, honest, valid criticism of your preferred party is to try to attack the messenger. And you did so without even having any actual facts on which to attack him.
7.12.2009 10:15am
Jonathan H. Adler (mail) (www):
JDB -

Jacoby specifically mentions the Patriot Act in his column as an example of how this is a bipartisan problem.

JHA
7.12.2009 10:22am
AF:
Members of Congress can be, should be, and are held responsible for every word in legislation they vote on. Not having read a bill has never been accepted as an excuse for a Congress member's vote.

Given this fact, who cares what they actually read?
7.12.2009 10:33am
cboldt (mail):
-- Not having read a bill has never been accepted as an excuse for a Congress member's vote. --
.
Maybe true as to "never been accepted" as an excuse (by whoever the Congressman/Senator feels an urge to answer to), but I recall Senator Specter expressing surprise at having passed the law that gave the AG the power to appoint replacement US Attorneys without Senate oversight. IOW, Specter admitting being totally unaware of agreeing to this law; and IIRC, he intimated that few, if any, of the Senators who agreed to the bill were aware of it.
7.12.2009 10:40am
PeteP (mail):
They've built a system where they have built-in 'plausible deniability' for any action they take.

Bills of > 1,000 pages being written behind closed doors, and voted on 24 hours later,

Incomprehensbile bills that read like 'In USC blah blah sub yadda para 2.34 delete the comma after the word 'crap'', and 50 pages of similar garbage, such that it would take weeks of expert study to go back and read every referenced item to see what the change actually is,

'Conference reconciliations' after the passage vote that can TOTALLY change major portions, or the entire bill, that then get a pro forma 'vote to accept',

Bills that purport to be on a certain subject, but in fact have items thrown in to satiate every special interest, lobbying group, incumbent vote-gathering, and contributor pay-off,

Earmarks handed out like candy or sexual favors by party leaders,

Politicians that will vote for ANYTHING as long as their personal little project for their brother-in-law's second cousin to get a little $ 10,000,000 project to protect the Southern California tree frog habitat,

on and on and on .....

Our system has been totally corrupted, distorted, and turned into an obscene nasty dirty little parody of what it was supposed to be, and what it pretends to still be.

Further, the only people who might be able to change it are those in power, those with money - IOW, the very ones who built it, and who thrive off it and live on it.

Face it, folks - we're screwed.
7.12.2009 10:43am
AF:
cboldt --

Obviously it's a problem if a member of Congress doesn't know in substance what he's voting for. I doubt any member of Congress would disagree.
7.12.2009 10:49am
Dennis Nolan (mail):
Ideally, representatives should read and understand every bill before they vote. Practically, that isn't always possible (some bills are a thousand or more pages long). Even if it were, some bills are far too technical for many representatives to understand. No one without tax law training, for instance, could comprehend the meaning and significance of most detailed Internal Revenue Code changes, and those without environmental science training would be at a loss when reading through some of the more technical environmental bills.

What could and should happen, however, is to publish drafts far enough in advance that specialists (including those congressional members and staffers with experience in particular areas, academics, and interest groups) can review them and report their analyses to members of Congress and to the interested public. Without at least that degree of review, they would be taking a pig in a poke --- and that explains many of the unpleasant surprises after bills are enacted.
7.12.2009 10:54am
martinned (mail) (www):

Incomprehensbile bills that read like 'In USC blah blah sub yadda para 2.34 delete the comma after the word 'crap'', and 50 pages of similar garbage, such that it would take weeks of expert study to go back and read every referenced item to see what the change actually is,

OK, so let's create a rule requiring the production of a consolidated version before any vote. (This problem came up in my area of the law as well. This is the official version of the Lisbon Treaty. Unsurprisingly, many people were not pleased at how long it took to produce a consoldiated version, so all sorts of academics already produced their own before the Council did.)

Otherwise, the solution is still the same as before: Make less law, which is great for libertarians but probably not what the voting public in general want, or delegate more authority to the other two branches of government by writing standards instead of rules into the law. In a presidential system, it makes sense for Congress to keep the executive on a short leash, and the way that they do that is by writing ridiculously long and detailed statutes.
7.12.2009 10:56am
martinned (mail) (www):

What could and should happen, however, is to publish drafts far enough in advance that specialists (including those congressional members and staffers with experience in particular areas, academics, and interest groups) can review them and report their analyses to members of Congress and to the interested public. Without at least that degree of review, they would be taking a pig in a poke --- and that explains many of the unpleasant surprises after bills are enacted.

http://thomas.loc.gov/
7.12.2009 10:57am
cboldt (mail):
Not reading isn't a matter of "being in a rush" or "total secrecy" either. The following by Specter, in debate on S.214 (passed into Pub.L. 110-34)
.
Congressional Record - March 19, 2007 - Page S3245
That provision had been added in the PATRIOT Act conference report and had been available for inspection from December 8, 2005, when the conference report was filed in the House, and March 2, 2006, when the report was adopted in the Senate. Though that conference report was available for some 85 days, it was not noted until we saw its application. ...
The House filed the Conference Report, H. Rept. 109-333 on December 8, 2005. The Conference Report was agreed to on December 14, 2005 in the House (House Roll no. 627). The Conference Report contained Sec. 502, which was clearly visible in the table of contents of the Report and titled as `Interim Appointment of US Attorneys''; it was not hidden, but was in plain view for all Members to consider. ...
In all, the Senate discussed the PATRIOT Conference Report in some form on the Floor for a total of 45 days. No mention was made of the Interim U.S. Attorney provision even though it was not snuck into a managers' package or included as a technical fix, but was instead clearly labeled and provided its own separate section.
7.12.2009 10:59am
Xenocles (www):
"Ideally, representatives should read and understand every bill before they vote. Practically, that isn't always possible (some bills are a thousand or more pages long). Even if it were, some bills are far too technical for many representatives to understand. No one without tax law training, for instance, could comprehend the meaning and significance of most detailed Internal Revenue Code changes, and those without environmental science training would be at a loss when reading through some of the more technical environmental bills."

Don't you think that's a problem? If a law is too complex for a legislator to understand it, how can he responsibly enact it? If it's too complex for the average layman to understand without professional help, how can he be a responsible citizen? I'm convinced that most of the law has been the result of lawyers making work for other lawyers.
7.12.2009 11:02am
geokstr (mail):

ruuffles:
It would be nice to enact legislation (or a constitutional amendment) requiring them to sign a statement, under penalty of perjury, attesting that they did indeed read the bill before they can vote for it. Lawyers take responsibility for documents they sign, even if they did not draft it themselves. Why not lawmakers?

Gosh darn it, ruuffles, why'd you have to go and say something like that? Here I was wallowing in my dislike and disrespect of everything ruuffles and you have to be reasonable and honorable and all that on an important issue that should be totally bipartisan. I'll never live down having to agree with you on anything and, I suspect, neither will you.

:-)

Oh, well, live and learn, I guess. I already have been red-faced for having to give props to MarkField and Joseph Slater in the recent past. Crow tastes almost as good as spotted owl or California condor when served with (several bottles of) a nice Chianti.

Can we go a little farther though? Once they've attested to having read the bill, could we also then hold those who then voted in favor to account for all the earmarks, payoffs to supporters, and unrelated provisions that could never be passed as stand-alone bills that are discovered once everyone else has a chance to read them too?
7.12.2009 11:02am
martinned (mail) (www):

I'm convinced that most of the law has been the result of lawyers making work for other lawyers.

Don't be silly. Society has gotten a lot more complex since the founding fathers, many of whom were lawyers, created this system. The complexity of the law has to keep up with the complexity of the society it is used to govern. The only question is whether that necessary richness in detail is worked out in the original statute, in executive branch policy, in judicial law making, or in a combination of the three.
7.12.2009 11:05am
martinned (mail) (www):

It would be nice to enact legislation (or a constitutional amendment) requiring them to sign a statement, under penalty of perjury, attesting that they did indeed read the bill before they can vote for it.

Would that also mean that you'd have sitting congressmen and senators arrested for perjury? I'm asking because I'm not sure (seriously, I'm not) whether that would be OK under art. I(6):

They shall in all cases, except treason, felony and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same
7.12.2009 11:08am
Brett Marston:
Jacoby expresses a preference for "shorter laws," but that's a little strange. Some of the most important - and effective - laws of the 20th century were quite long and detailed, like the Clean Air Act. And shorter laws will just end up creating more delegation, either to the agencies or the courts. I'm not sure why it is better for the public for delegation to be external to Congress rather than internal.
7.12.2009 11:16am
cboldt (mail):
I'm in the camp who scoffs at "pass a law" or "amend the constitution" so as to force a Congressman or Senator to act responsibly, i.e., to read and understand before agreeing to pass. Obtaining performance in that regard is not within the realm of "lawmaking." The performance of a legislator in enacting legislation is about as pure a political question as one could find. The solution to irresponsible legislators is directly in the hands of the voters.
.
I'm also in the camp that holds Congress in contempt and ridicule. A more worthless lot of humans would be hard to assemble on purpose.
7.12.2009 11:17am
geokstr (mail):
Martinned:

Speaking for myself, I was just being a bit hyperbolic on the perjury part. I am open to any procedural changes that can make individual politicians more accountable for what they pass into law. Right now there is pretty much zero accountability except at the ballot box, which is often years later and long forgotten, and then subject to intense PR manipulation.

Even there, deals are made all the time on voting for specific legislation. How many of those 40-odd Democrats who voted against cap'n'tax were expressly permitted by Pelosi to do so, because they are from conservative districts or ones that the legislation will heavily impact, and their votes were not needed anyway?

If there were any real way to measure it, I would even advocate some kind of contract with performance clauses in them based on the results of legislation, similar to those given to athletes. If there is an important problem that Congress needed to attempt to solve, give the ones who voted for a bill a big bonus if it works. I realize that the complexity and intricacy of such a system would render it impossible, but it's a thought.

Right now, I suspect legislation causes as at least as many, and likely lots more, major problems as it attempts to solve, often in directions totally unforeseen. Take the Community Reinvestment Act for example.
7.12.2009 11:30am
The River Temoc (mail):
Once again: we elect representatives to exercise policy judgment -- not to conduct legal due diligence.

The Contgress' role is to weigh picture questions (e.g., "is cap-and-trade better than a carbon tax or some other alternative), not to chase commas and comforming changes in the United States Code. The latter is, in many cases, why bills are so long -- and it's exactly why we have a non-partisan Office of Legislative Counsel.

Is this system foolproof? Of course not, because no system is. A rogue legislative counsel *could* go off making substantive changes under the guise of comma chasing, and it *might* escape the notice of the committee staff and personal staff involved in drafting the bill.

But the risk of this is small. And there are much, much bigger risks involved in having congressmen read pages of fine print: they would have much less time to meet with constituents, policy experts, interest groups, and so on.
7.12.2009 11:40am
The River Temoc (mail):
What could and should happen, however, is to publish drafts far enough in advance that specialists (including those congressional members and staffers with experience in particular areas, academics, and interest groups) can review them and report their analyses to members of Congress and to the interested public.

This happens almost without exception. Even the big omnibus bills usually consolidate bills that have been thrown into the hopper many moons ago.

The biggest problem is when legislation is rushed in response to some perceived crisis, e.g., the Patriot Act and Sarbanes-Oxley.
7.12.2009 11:43am
Brett Marston:
I see that Martinned got to my point first. It's still worth underlining, though, that the complaint has an aura of being a proxy fight for libertarians who appear to believe that because less government is better, procedural devices that limit the output of legislation are desirable. This is not persuasive unless you can account for the sources of demand for legislation / regulation in a way that will explain how that demand will be eliminated by the procedural device rather than shifted to other governmental institutions.
7.12.2009 11:45am
Xenocles (www):
"The Contgress' role is to weigh picture questions (e.g., "is cap-and-trade better than a carbon tax or some other alternative), not to chase commas and comforming changes in the United States Code. The latter is, in many cases, why bills are so long -- and it's exactly why we have a non-partisan Office of Legislative Counsel."

I'm in a managerial role at work, so ideally I just tell my subordinates what I want and they do it. I still check up on them, though, because ultimately my name's on the product and I'm held accountable for it. Why is the expectation different for people who make $100K more than me and whose products carry the force of law?
7.12.2009 11:46am
JohnKT (mail):
When I followed things like this, late 70s, there were between 10,000 and 20,000 bills introduced in Congress every year. The bulk of them are weeded out in committees. One year, a banner year, only 256 bills were enacted, never since repeated so far as I know.

Long before my passing interest, there were too many bills every session for Congress as a body to deal with. My PolySci teacher explained to us that that motivated the Committee system. Ideally, a committee specializes in an area, say criminal law. Note that this area is pretty arcane, and isn't immediately accessible to the committeeperson on banking. And vice versa. Thus, the banking guy must trust the criminal law guy that a particular bill is ok or not ok. They take each other's word.

Please excuse my scolding, but you guys are ridiculous asking all congresscritters to read and understand all bills they sign. 10,000 to 20,000 bills a year, remember?

In the early years of Congress, members did try to deal with all bills. This included what are now regulations in the CFR. At one time Congress formulated the regulations. It was simply unworkable. The result was that Congress enables, while the Executive implements the details, or else work could not get done.

The committee system is the best that Congress can do. That there is a lot of crummy stuff that slips through the committee system, I agree. I don't have the slightest clue what to do about it, and I daresay nobody on this blog does either.

For what it's worth, over 7,000 bills were introduced in the Texas legislature this recent session. According to Grits for Breakfast, some 1,400 were enacted. He says most of them are minor, and I suppose most of the minor bills are tweaks to the regulations to enable the state bureaucracy to change their procedures.

Similar statistics, plus or minus a couple of thousand, apply to all the states.

What the hell else are we supposed to do?
7.12.2009 12:01pm
Xenocles (www):
"What the hell else are we supposed to do?"

Oh, I don't know... not introduce so many bills, maybe?
7.12.2009 12:13pm
TNeloms:

I see that Martinned got to my point first. It's still worth underlining, though, that the complaint has an aura of being a proxy fight for libertarians who appear to believe that because less government is better, procedural devices that limit the output of legislation are desirable. This is not persuasive unless you can account for the sources of demand for legislation / regulation in a way that will explain how that demand will be eliminated by the procedural device rather than shifted to other governmental institutions.


Excellent point. The same happens with respect to lobbyists, where people (generally libertarians) will say, "The best way to limit the power of special interests is to limit the power of government." Well, that may be true, and if you already think that limiting the power of government is a good idea, then this is the perfect solution. But if you want to convince people who *don't* already want a small government, a much more careful and specific argument needs to be made.
7.12.2009 12:18pm
Ken Arromdee:
Don't you think that's a problem? If a law is too complex for a legislator to understand it, how can he responsibly enact it? If it's too complex for the average layman to understand without professional help, how can he be a responsible citizen?


If you mean "how can a layman follow a law he doesn't understand", that doesn't really follow. For instance, imagine a law which applies to a narrow category of people where the layman knows he's not part of that category.

In our society we have division of labor. There are people whose job it is to understand laws. That's why staffers and lobbyists exist. "I didn't have time to read the law" is just a combination of two problems: First, laws that are passed so fast that there's no time even for staffers and lobbyists to go through them; second, lying politicians that know very well that something's in the law (regardless of whether they read it personally). Just the fact that the law is long isn't the problem.
7.12.2009 12:34pm
MarkField (mail):

Crow tastes almost as good as spotted owl or California condor when served with (several bottles of) a nice Chianti.


I hope there's something better than a Yanni CD playing in the background. Because that would be wrong.
7.12.2009 12:36pm
SFH:
For what it's worth, over 7,000 bills were introduced in the Texas legislature this recent session. According to Grits for Breakfast, some 1,400 were enacted.

Does that include proclamations for "State Pickle Week," and the like?
7.12.2009 12:37pm
Brian Garst (www):

Excellent point. The same happens with respect to lobbyists, where people (generally libertarians) will say, "The best way to limit the power of special interests is to limit the power of government." Well, that may be true, and if you already think that limiting the power of government is a good idea, then this is the perfect solution. But if you want to convince people who *don't* already want a small government, a much more careful and specific argument needs to be made.


You're right. A more careful and specific argument would be: "The only way to limit the power of special interests is to limit the power of government."
7.12.2009 2:05pm
Federal Dog:
"What the hell else are we supposed to do?"

Is this actually a serious question?

Are you really suggesting that it is better to enact thousands of bills that are not only unread but neither understood nor even understandable than to limit government action to thoughtful, deliberate, responsible, and non-destructive conduct?

I will tell you "what the hell else we are supposed to do": Enact a tiny fraction of legislation currently proposed and make people accountable for their actions.
7.12.2009 2:15pm
The River Temoc (mail):
Enact a tiny fraction of legislation currently proposed and make people accountable for their actions.

We already do both. Most legislation introduced never even makes it to a committee vote, much less getting enacted. And if your representative casts votes your dislike, you can vote against him in the next election, contribute to his opponent, work on his opponent's campaign, etc.
7.12.2009 2:21pm
Federal Dog:
You miss the point: Anyone who really doesn't even know what is in a bill may not, as a matter of minimal intelligence, responsibility, and decency, enact it into law. It is irrelevant how many bills do not make it to that point. The concern is about those that do and wreak havoc because there are people stupid enough to vote based on utter ignorance and really could not care less what damage their ignorance does to society.
7.12.2009 2:27pm
The River Temoc (mail):
I'm in a managerial role at work, so ideally I just tell my subordinates what I want and they do it. I still check up on them, though, because ultimately my name's on the product and I'm held accountable for it. Why is the expectation different for people who make $100K more than me and whose products carry the force of law?

Because if you're a C-level executive checking everything that, say, line engineers do, you are wasting your time and your shareholders' time. (Dare I speculate that you work at a law firm?)

Boeing is experiencing significant delays with its 787 program because of various engineering issues. The capital markets will most certainly hold Boeing, and quite possibly James McNerney, its CEO, accountable for these delays.

Does it follow that McNerney should be spending his days huddling with line engineers, even if he is not an engineer himself? If you want him to check up on everything, where do you draw the line? Should he also join the legal diligence teams every time Boeing gets sued for some minor affair?

One important aspect of leadership is the ability to figure out what issues are so important that they demand your personal attention. In the case of elected officials, leafing through pages of conforming changes ain't one of them. In most cases, elected leaders identify the controversial sections of legislation very quickly -- and of course interest groups are always happy to remind them.
7.12.2009 2:39pm
The River Temoc (mail):
Anyone who really doesn't even know what is in a bill may not, as a matter of minimal intelligence, responsibility, and decency, enact it into law.

"Knowing what is in the bill" is not the same as certifying that you've personally checked up on every single cross-reference, comma, conforming change, and so forth -- which is the proposal we're discussing here.
7.12.2009 2:44pm
Bruce Hayden (mail):
I agree with a previous poster. The issue is not the thousands of bills that never come to a vote, but the few that do. One complaint is that several times in this Congress, massive bills have come up for a vote, and then been passed, without giving anyone a chance to read and understand them.

My hope is that enough voters are going to ask their Congresspeople why they voted for X, Y, and Z, that are now law. And the Congresspeople have no real answer, and are voted out of office as a result.

I do believe that Speaker Pelosi may have overreached here, which is why the Democrats are in such a rush to pass all their agenda before the end of the year. A lot of her majority are sitting in seats held by Republicans 4 years ago, and are likely vulnerable. She is almost guaranteed to lose seats in 2010, and if this keeps up, may lose her majority. The problem here is that a lot of those new Democrats in the House sitting in former Republican seats voted for her "stimulus" bill and the global warming bill, without having had a chance to read the legislation.
7.12.2009 2:45pm
Federal Dog:
"One important aspect of leadership is the ability to figure out what issues are so important that they demand your personal attention."

If one is a legislator, this principle mandates personal knowledge of the contents of any bill being voted for enactment into binding law.
7.12.2009 2:46pm
PeteP (mail):
"I do believe that Speaker Pelosi may have overreached here, which is why the Democrats are in such a rush to pass all their agenda before the end of the year."

Obama, Reid, and Pelosi know that they will never have a better hand ( of votes ) than they have this year. Next year, the 2010 election cycle starts, and everyone runs for cover and money.

They know that they are likely to lose seats in both houses, simply on the 'pendulum swing' if nothing else, and so, led by Obama, they are trying to cram everything, trillions and trillions of dollars worth of 'progressive' socialist dreams, 40 years worth of pent-up left wing socialist agenda, down our throats this year.
7.12.2009 2:55pm
Brett Marston:

"Knowing what is in the bill" is not the same as certifying that you've personally checked up on every single cross-reference, comma, conforming change, and so forth — which is the proposal we're discussing here.

Exactly right.

Such a certification procedure might deter non-lawyers from serving in the legislature. At least non-lawyers might seem less qualified.

Another consequence - cutting the other way - might be that legislators would demand that statutory language become less technical and, therefore, more imprecise for professional purposes. I doubt that would be a good thing from the perspective of someone trying to obey the law (absent regulatory specification), and it probably would increase litigation over disputed terms. Of course, folks who implement the law would have a freer hand initially, because the law would be more tied to ordinary language and hence less amenable to precise technical limitations on power.

If statutory language becomes more imprecise, courts would probably find textualism less useful. After all, if the text is more closely tied to ordinary language, there will be more instances where the text is quite unclear from a technical standpoint, and courts will probably need to look to other kinds of evidence - such as the legislative record - for help in translating the plain terms of the text into technical legal language.
7.12.2009 3:25pm
JohnKT (mail):
To my:

"What the hell else are we supposed to do?"



Federal Dog says:

Is this actually a serious question?

Are you really suggesting that it is better to enact thousands of bills that are not only unread but neither understood nor even understandable than to limit government action to thoughtful, deliberate, responsible, and non-destructive conduct?

I will tell you "what the hell else we are supposed to do": Enact a tiny fraction of legislation currently proposed and make people accountable for their actions.


OK, OK, you got me. Listen up, legislators, Congressional and State. Enact less laws, you hear?

But I also said:

The committee system is the best that Congress can do. That there is a lot of crummy stuff that slips through the committee system, I agree. I don't have the slightest clue what to do about it, and I daresay nobody on this blog does either.


Giving several thousand legislators the order not to enact so much legislation is one thing, but figuring out a way to get that done is another.

My father believed that for every law written, two should be taken off the books. He meant it more humorously than practically.

What is your suggestion for getting legislatures to enact less laws?

Or, am I right? We don't have any ideas what to do about it.
7.12.2009 3:30pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
I'd be astonished -- if I weren't aware how partisan attacks on politicians are -- at how many people who acted outraged at Bush's violations of the Constitution simply act as if it's no big deal that members of Congress don't read the bills they vote on. That's a far bigger violation of their Constitutional duty than some signing statements.

You've got to love the, "Oh, my, they wouldn't have time to pass so many bills if they "

Don't be silly. Society has gotten a lot more complex since
No, it hasn't. Government has. Society works the same as it always did.
the founding fathers, many of whom were lawyers, created this system. The complexity of the law has to keep up with the complexity of the society it is used to govern.
It really doesn't. There's no law needed now, except for minor technical updates for new technology, that wasn't around at the time of the founding fathers.
The only question is whether that necessary richness in detail is worked out in the original statute, in executive branch policy, in judicial law making, or in a combination of the three.
Or among private citizens without the involvement of any branch of government.
7.12.2009 3:35pm
AJK:


What is your suggestion for getting legislatures to enact less laws?

Or, am I right? We don't have any ideas what to do about it.


No, we know exactly how to do it: make them read the laws first.
7.12.2009 3:37pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Whoops. Hit post in mid-sentence:

You've got to love the, "Oh, my, they wouldn't have time to pass so many bills if they read them." It's one thing to argue this as a factual claim, but another to offer this as a defense of their practice.
7.12.2009 3:40pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
There are already rules in each House requiring the reading of bills by the Clerk, which are regularly allowed to be "dispensed with" by "unanimous consent" or "without objection". All that is needed would be for some members to object, although if they did they would soon become blackballed by their colleagues.

When I worked as a volunteer on Capitol Hill reviewing legislation, I soon learned that much legislation was beyond the knowledge or comprehension not only of members, but even of staffers and lobbyists. I became amazed that the result is not more disastrous than it is.

We can't really force members to read the bills, but we can force them not to vote on them for at least 30 days after they reach final form, so that the public can review them online. Treating some legislation as "emergency" legislation is much abused. In those rare instances where a bill can't wait for 30 days, let the adoption be provisional, subject to a confirming vote 30 days later. That would allow some things like continuing operations, although it could create some awkward situations if the operations are not continued by the re-vote.

That brings up the related problems of administrative and judicial rules changes. The present review and comment periods are not sufficient, because the rulemakers can still choose to ignore critical comments. We need a rule that if there are enough opposing comments the proposed rule will be withdrawn until the next round.

The complexities of rulemaking that argue against review by lawmakers are cited for income tax rules, but there we have rules that are not only violative of the nondelegation principle, but incomprehensible to the agents who are asked to enforce them, with the result that they just make up their own informal "rules" from one case to the next.
7.12.2009 3:43pm
Sarcastro (www):
I demand Michael Bay watch his movies. Every minute. It's the only way he could understand what he has wrought.
7.12.2009 3:47pm
vmark12 (mail):
Hard to argue...

>>Feeling good about government is like looking on the bright side of any catastrophe. When you quit looking on the bright side, the catastrophe is still there.<<
P. J. O'Rourke
7.12.2009 4:02pm
MCM (mail):
Jacoby specifically mentions the Patriot Act in his column as an example of how this is a bipartisan problem.


Funny, maybe you should have mentioned that in your post, then. But if it wasn't mindless Democrat-bashing, it wouldn't be true Adler!
7.12.2009 4:07pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
PeteP,

While I agree that the HoR is likely to become more balanced in '10 it will not surprise me if the Senate the balance shifts even more to the Democrat side. Just like last year there are quite a few more Republicans up for re-election next year. Not until '12 is there a Senate slate that is significantly Democrat encumbent.

That's also part of why last year was such a disaster, it was not a good year to be a Republican up for election and there were far more Republican held seats that cycle.
7.12.2009 4:10pm
Xenocles (www):
"Funny, maybe you should have mentioned that in your post, then. But if it wasn't mindless Democrat-bashing, it wouldn't be true Adler!"

Or maybe you could have read the link...
7.12.2009 4:14pm
TNeloms:

Brian Garst:
You're right. A more careful and specific argument would be: "The only way to limit the power of special interests is to limit the power of government."


My point was that you'd have to argue why the power of special interests is worth limiting the power of government. If you're speaking to someone who is already in support of small-government, then you don't need to make this argument. But if you're trying to convince someone who isn't, you'd need to either convince them that small government is a good thing (though it may be obvious to you, presumably it's not easy to convince everyone of this) or that given their belief that big government has its benefits, limiting government for this purpose is worthwhile.
7.12.2009 4:33pm
The River Temoc (mail):
Another consequence - cutting the other way - might be that legislators would demand that statutory language become less technical and, therefore, more imprecise for professional purposes.

As a practical matter, the effect of the certification requirement that the early posters are proposing would be to move to "conceptual legislation."

The Senate Finance Committee allows members to propose "conceptual amendments" -- they can write several sentences summarizing their proposal, and the committee votes on the amendment on that basis. The chairman (effectively, the majority staff) will write the amendment into the next chairman's markup of the bill. Members can still introduce a full-blown amendment, of course.

Naturally, this procedure gives the chairman a good deal of power to interpret the sponsor's intent. No Senate committee other than Finance allows conceptual amendments, so far as I know.

The certification requirement under discussion would effectively introduce this practice writ large. We would get conceptual bills, the details of which would later be filled in either by the congressional leadership or by bureaucrats in the executive branch.

On the whole, this would weaken the accountability of Congress, not enhance it. Nothing infuriates Congress more than when executive branch bureaucrats write regulations inconsistent with statutory intent, and it's sheer folly to exponentially increase their ability to do so.
7.12.2009 4:38pm
The River Temoc (mail):
When I worked as a volunteer on Capitol Hill reviewing legislation, I soon learned that much legislation was beyond the knowledge or comprehension not only of members, but even of staffers and lobbyists.

And when I worked as a more-than-volunteer on the Hill, I found the opposite.
7.12.2009 4:42pm
Federal Dog:
"OK, OK, you got me. Listen up, legislators, Congressional and State. Enact less laws, you hear?"

OK, OK, you got me. Listen up, legislators, congressional and state. Enact more laws, you hear? I don't care if you have no idea whatsoever what the hell you're doing, JUST DO SOMETHING!
7.12.2009 5:09pm
MarkField (mail):

I'd be astonished -- if I weren't aware how partisan attacks on politicians are -- at how many people who acted outraged at Bush's violations of the Constitution simply act as if it's no big deal that members of Congress don't read the bills they vote on. That's a far bigger violation of their Constitutional duty than some signing statements.


A violation of the Constitution? Not to we textualists. Perhaps you could point to the relevant clause. Or at least to historical evidence that members of Congress have always read all bills they voted on.

FWIW, I think Members ought to read the bills, but pretending that the failure to do so is something new is just plain silly. Those of us who did the reading in high school and college are posting on blogs. Those who read the Cliffs Notes are in Congress.
7.12.2009 5:17pm
SFH:
The biggest problem is when legislation is rushed in response to some perceived crisis, e.g., the Patriot Act and Sarbanes-Oxley.

Whenever I hear that there's a crisis and politicians must do something right now, I know that the politicians will do something stupid. The Patriot Act could have waited a little while for heads to cool down, and same with the bank bailout.

Of course, they will probably still commit stupidity, but at least it will be considered stupidity.
7.12.2009 5:34pm
Zimm (mail):
Maybe Jeff Jacoby should make a promise to read ever single bill that comes before Congress since ostensibly, every bill will affect him as an American. And then after reading each bill, he can write his legislator and explain why he does/does not support the bill or recommend changes.

What an ass.
7.12.2009 5:54pm
MCM (mail):
"Funny, maybe you should have mentioned that in your post, then. But if it wasn't mindless Democrat-bashing, it wouldn't be true Adler!"

Or maybe you could have read the link...


I did read the link. That's the whole point.
7.12.2009 6:48pm
New Pseudonym:
I didn't read the link, so I guess I'm not qualified to vote on discuss this issue, but,

I agree that there is a serious and growing problem with "stuff" getting enacted into law that would never be enacted on its merits in an up or down vote.

But I agree that in out deliberative bodies (leave room for snark) the committee system should be capable of sorting many things out. I also agree that congresspersons should be able to (generally) trust the recommendations of (their party's members of) the approptiate committees.

In my view, the problem is not so much with the congressperson's reading of the details of the bill, it is with the trend (greatly accellerated under Reid and Pelosi -- and I speak more of them as individuals more than as partisans) to create omnibus bills. (Do we blame this on Henry Clay?)

If bills were limited to single subjects, preservation of salt water marsh mice or whatever would not appear in a healthcare bill. Some state constitutions require this limitation and several additional ones require it for constitutional amendments. This would at least allow somebody to know what a bill is about, and have the additional merit of banning pork that is inserted into otherwise meritorious bills.

I think the current healthcare bill is one that would have a chance of improving healthcare in a way that a majority could approve of if it were split into separate bills. There is no way that parts of the Stimulus [sic] Bill would have passed with a limitation of this sort.

Downside factors: It would require a constitutional amendment to prevent "waiving the rules" to get around it, and as some states have shown, there will be litigation about what a single subject is.
7.12.2009 6:49pm
juris_imprudent (mail):
"Knowing what is in the bill" is not the same as certifying that you've personally checked up on every single cross-reference, comma, conforming change, and so forth -- which is the proposal we're discussing here.

Whoa, I don't think anyone is expressing concern/outrage over misplaced commas. Knowing what is in the bill is not a matter or reading the executive summary in white papers from executive and congressional staffers, or lobbyists. That substantive flaws are uncovered after voting is indicative of a serious problem in quality assurance. Stoyer is merely revealing the real nature of Congressional culture: they don't care if they do a bad job just as long the voters keep them in that job.
7.12.2009 7:16pm
pluribus:
Mark Field is right. There is nothing in the Constitution that requires senators or congressmen to read bills before they vote on them. Do I hear any complaint about those who vote no, or is the sin only in voting yes? If a bill is good, it would seem to be just as bad to vote against it without reading it as to vote for it without reading it when it is bad.

There is nothing in the Constitution (not even in the First Amendment) that requires bloggers to read federal statutes before they condemn them as stupid or evil. Yet we see that done all the time, on this site as well as others. Is it right to expect our lawmakers to do what we are unwilling to do ourselves?

I once had a job where I had to monitor new federal legislation. Believe me, nobody would want to read all of the thousands and thousands of pages of utter glue that emanates from Washington each year. I don't object if my senator or congressman relies on a committee recommendation when he or she votes on an internal security law or an energy bill. If that weren't the norm in legislatures around the world, they would all grind to a halt. Libertarians would no doubt rejoice. I wouldn't.

Oh, and by the way, should bloggers be required to read court opinions before they condemn them or their authors? If that were required, posts on this site and others would quickly dwindle to a precious few.
7.12.2009 7:28pm
Toby:
How about:

"Every clause or amendment should be footnoted to identify who introduced it into the legislation."
7.12.2009 7:30pm
Guest56 (mail):
I have an innocent question. Perhaps my logic doesn't follow, but is it appropriate to vote to re-elect an incumbent Congressman without reading, in its entirety, all the legislation he has introduced in that term? Is it appropriate to vote for a rising Congressional candidate, with experience in the state Houses, without reading all of the legislation he has introduced?

If this is approprate, how so? And how would that be consistent with all of the disapproval voiced here? My guess is, most commenters here have cast a vote for a representative without having personally evaluated every piece of legislation he introduced. I'm guessing this gets justified on the basis that you more or less know what you're getting in comparison the alternatives, that you know the broad outlines of his views -- you likely know several of his specific positions -- and you're confident his presence will be an overall plus. Of course, if Congressional members justify their votes by that logic, too, they're somehow abdicating responsibility.

I don't buy it. We have committees for a reason. The people in this thread are basically saying that every senator needs to be a generalist in every area of law and policy. Unless you want them to read it but don't mind if they don't understand nearly any of it.
7.12.2009 8:03pm
The River Temoc (mail):
Whoa, I don't think anyone is expressing concern/outrage over misplaced commas.

I respectfully disagree. The reason that members don't read the legislation in its entirety is because it's too long -- and that generally happens for two reasons.

One is that most legislation contains a lot of housekeeping matters -- the misplaced commas. (The other is omnibus bills, which is another subject in and of itself.)

Knowing what is in the bill is not a matter or reading the executive summary in white papers from executive and congressional staffers, or lobbyists.

I think that's exactly what it is. Do you think a CEO reads through all the boilerplate legalese in a merger contract? Or does he rely on counsel to provide a summary of the key terms, like the price, consideration, key covenants, and so forth?
7.12.2009 8:09pm
The River Temoc (mail):
If bills were limited to single subjects, preservation of salt water marsh mice or whatever would not appear in a healthcare bill. Some state constitutions require this limitation and several additional ones require it for constitutional amendments.

This is actually a more reasonable proposal from the point of view of managing information flow and ensuring that senators are familiar with the substance of bills they are voting on.

I'm not sure it would really cut down on pork, though. We still get a lot of pork introduced in stand-alone form, such as in bills that would waive tariffs for specific goods and services. One man's pork is another's sweet tomatoes...
7.12.2009 8:16pm
Brett Marston:
Pluribus writes:

Do I hear any complaint about those who vote no, or is the sin only in voting yes?


The "Let Freedom Ring" folks only seem to care about restricting yes votes, which is strange, but it does at least show a certain straightforward attachment to the status quo.

The Downsize DC proposal doesn't even require members to read bills; its main purpose is to gum up the legislative process with a full reading (quorum required) of every bill and conference report. Members are then allowed to vote on a bill only if they attest that they have either attended the full reading and "listened attentively" or have read the bill ("personally and attentively") on their own.

Like the freedom ringers' pledge, the Downsize DC bill only restricts members from voting "for passage," so unless I'm missing something, presumably the minority party could fly off to fundraisers or golf trips and still vote against the bill.

Both seem transparently tilted against congressional action, which means that only the minority party would ever have an interest in either the pledge or the bill. Convenient for pundits but not good as constructive suggestions. Mostly good, as TNeloms (and others) have noted, for the already converted. Perhaps that's why Downsize DC includes the text of the bill under the "talking points" section of its web site.

River Temoc: the Senate Finance Commmittee info is interesting. Does the process work well? Is the chair tempted to override the wishes of the committee?
7.12.2009 8:45pm
SG:
Do I hear any complaint about those who vote no, or is the sin only in voting yes? If a bill is good, it would seem to be just as bad to vote against it without reading it as to vote for it without reading it when it is bad.

I disagree. Voting no, even against a "good" bill, doesn't alter the relationship between citizens and their government. If you're an elected representative who is going to change that relationship, you should know what it is you're changing the relationship to.

Which is not to say that I'd approve of ignorant no votes either, only that I see a difference between voting no w/o having read the bill and voting yes. Better the devil you know, and all that.
7.12.2009 8:49pm
Dave N (mail):
While I agree that the HoR is likely to become more balanced in '10 it will not surprise me if the Senate the balance shifts even more to the Democrat side. Just like last year there are quite a few more Republicans up for re-election next year. Not until '12 is there a Senate slate that is significantly Democrat encumbent.
Actually, there are 18 Republicans and 18 Democrats up next year--largely because of Democratic vacancies in New York (Clinton), Delaware (Biden), Colorado (Salazar), and Illinois (Obama).

However, Congressional Quarterly rates more Republican than Democratic seats as vulnerable.

Frankly, if the economy continues to tank, I suspect more Republican seats will become safe and more Democratic seats will become vulnerable.
7.12.2009 8:50pm
theobromophile (www):
To all those who think that every citizen (or critic) ought to read every single piece of legislation that Congress passes: did you miss the part wherein that is not our job?

Seriously, it is not the job of every citizen (or critic, or blogger, or voter) to read everything. We have a representative democracy; part of the reason for that is to allow a good division of labour. It is hardly our fault that the people who are paid to do their job (which, one would assume, includes reading the bills they vote on) fail to do so.
7.12.2009 9:16pm
JK:
"Reading the bill" strikes me as a pretty arbitrary line to draw on the spectrum of "understanding the law that are passed/voted on," which is presumably the ultimate goal hear. Reading the bill doesn't magically grant full knowledge of the legal and practical effects of a proposed law, and not reading it doesn't magically deny such knowledge.

My guess is that if X is the amount of time it would like to read the law, and X+Y was the total amount of time that a legislature would spend learning about the issues surrounding a law, the nature of the proposed law, it's intended effects, etc. THen Y would have to be extremely large before it became worthwhile to spend the time reading the bill.
7.12.2009 9:33pm
JK:
OTOH I should probably read my posts before I enact them... ouch
7.12.2009 9:48pm
Guest056 (mail):
Theobromophile,

I understand. We are entitled to vote on people about whom we have incomplete knowledge, but those people, in turn, are not allowed to vote on bills about which they have incomplete knowledge -- because we reserve the right to shirk due diligence as citizens in a democracy, but they don't hold the same rights in reserve. And wehn we shirk due dilligence, we call it a division of labor. When Congress quite literally divides the labor through the committee process, however, they're simply not doing their jobs.

The whole debate misses the point. Reading an entire bill is less important than understanding its provisions or in making sure, individually, that the bills you help craft in committee don't contain and will not be complicated by nonsensical riders. If every legislator took full responsibility for the legislation he or she introduced and sponsored, keeping the leaves out of the gutter, the system would work just as well.
7.12.2009 9:59pm
MarkField (mail):

Voting no, even against a "good" bill, doesn't alter the relationship between citizens and their government.


I don't get this at all. Voting against a good bill means that a problem the country needs to solve is (potentially) left to fester. This is particularly the case for bills which empower citizens (e.g., the Voting Rights Act), but is generally true for others. If a Member votes no because s/he doesn't understand the bill, that's just as problematic as voting yes while not understanding it.
7.12.2009 10:10pm
theobromophile (www):
Reading an entire bill is less important than understanding its provisions

Guest: this is disingenuous. Take, for example, the "climate change" bill that passed the House a few weeks ago. At 3:09 am, a 300-page amendment was introduced. Now, one could argue that a few legislators actually understood the gist of the bill and how it functions, but, obviously, most of them did not even know what they were voting for. There were provisions in there that people who want to sell their homes would have to retrofit them to be "green." Did all of the Congressmen who voted for the bill know that?

You can divert attention, all day and all night, to what citizens do and do not do, but, aside from the blindingly obvious point that no amount of good or bad actions by one group determines the propriety of that of another group, ultimately, we do not have the tremendous power than Congress does, and we are not in a position of such responsibility. Congressmen aren't teenagers who are putting together a school play; they are among the most powerful people in the world. Asking them to use that power responsibly is basic sanity.
7.12.2009 10:38pm
Jam:
You think there is a problem in DC, in the Texas Leg. is worse. The Tex.Leg. meets every other year for a limited number of days. Instead of taking those restrictions as an indication that our Founding Fathers intended for very few laws to be enacted, our idiot distinguished legislators take to mean to pass as mush as they can, regardless if they even know what they are voting for. Heck, sometimes they cast a vote on behalf of absent coleages.
7.12.2009 10:42pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Oh, and by the way, should bloggers be required to read court opinions before they condemn them or their authors? If that were required, posts on this site and others would quickly dwindle to a precious few.
Bloggers have no obligations to anybody except themselves. The analogy, like all the others that try to excuse members of Congress who are derelict in their duties, is faulty.
7.12.2009 10:49pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
The "Let Freedom Ring" folks only seem to care about restricting yes votes, which is strange, but it does at least show a certain straightforward attachment to the status quo.
It's not at all strange. Voting "no" doesn't change the law, and thus affects neither the rights nor obligations of the public. Voting yes, on the other hand, does both.


You know, if I'm arrested or administratively fined for violating one of those laws that they've voted yes on, I can't say, "Well, I didn't read the bill, so I didn't know I wasn't allowed to do that." And yet the law may have been passed by people who didn't even know they were outlawing what I did!
7.12.2009 10:53pm
mariner:
Or maybe you could have read the link...

I did read the link. That's the whole point.

OK wiseass, you should have read the article the link pointed at. If you had, you would have found:

Ramming legislation through Congress so quickly that neither lawmakers nor voters have time to read and digest it is a bipartisan crime; Republicans have been as guilty of it as Democrats. The 341-page Patriot Act, to mention just one notorious example, ...

But then your comment wouldn't have been just mindless Adler-bashing.
7.12.2009 10:58pm
Guest056 (mail):
Theo,

I don't see how your post speaks to my point being disingenuous. People who voted for the late night amendment without a clue to its provisions, are, to my lights, culpable of bad governance. The people who added it at that hour, are, perhaps, even more guilty. But if you knew exactly what you were voting for because you were correctly briefed by a team of legislative aids who dissected the overnight drop -- and I'm not saying that happened in most or in any case -- then, no, I don't care if you read it yourself. You knew what you were doing.

As to the notion that there can be no analogy drawn between the voting acts of citizens, and those of the people we elect -- well, maybe we're talking past each other. I'll happily conceed I'm an imperfect communicator.

But ultimately, we do have tremendous power on the collective scale. You seem to be saying that personally exercising the rights of franchise is largely meaningless given the size of the electorate. Voting is not putting on a school play, either. And if you vote in ignorance, you're as culpable as the Congressperson who does so. This is a participatory democracy, and I'm not keen on letting the public off the hook that easily. Let me be clear. When we vote, our responsibility to cast an informed vote on matters before us is as great as Congress's responsibility to do the same. That they get paid to vote doesn't mean anything. They're not important because they draw a paycheck; they're important because their in the United States Congress. In the same vein, we're luving in a free democracy that's spent centuries defending and expanding the franchise. I don't thikn I need to wax poetic as to its importance and the respect with which we ought to treat it.

Further, I never would claim that the propriety or impropriety of our actions as voters affects the accuracy of our claims against Congress. I did say -- and will clarify -- that ignoring our own failures as voters can, at worst, give rise to charges of hypocracy. At best, the comparison can be instructive. Just as you said, we divide the labor. So does Congress.

Let me stress that I'm not taking an absolutist view that reading the bill is of little consequence. When it can be done, and when doing so would bear real fruits, it should be done. But if someone who sits on an agriculture subcommittee reads a telecommunications bill and votes against without understanding it, well, I'm not going to be impressed. That's why, in this thread, I'm responding to what I see as an absolutist view that voting on a bill without having read it completely first is always a special dereliction of duty.
7.12.2009 11:13pm
Allan Walstad (mail):
Perhaps some legislation does have to be quite long and technical, and every legislator can't be expected to read and understand every word of it. And perhaps some things have to be passed quickly. Nevertheless, most folks' sensibilities are offended by the thought that their reps routinely pass monumental volumes of legislation on short notice, clearly not being very familiar with the contents.

As far as I'm concerned, the question of whether they read everything they vote on is less important than that it fall within the Constitution. And vast landscapes of federal legislation do not, regardless of the false stamp of approval given to them by political appointees wearing black robes. So it does serve my purposes to point out that if the feds limited themselves to what the Constitution allows, they would be passing far less legislation and might have more opportunity to consider what's in it before they vote. If a few additional cranial lights click on, that's good.

Taking it one step farther back, I want legislation to conform to the Constitution because the Constitution was written to limit the feds, and I want limited government. The case for limited government has been made over and over going back centuries, and I'm not going to make a dent in rehashing it here.

Just for fun, here's an idea: how about a requirement that any bill longer than x number of characters must be passed twice, with a time interval that increases with the length of the bill? That way, the longer the bill, the more time citizens would have to read and comment on it to their reps and in the media. So if there are flaws, they will be found and publicized. This doesn't require the legislators to read everything, but it ensures that they will hear about things in it that their constituents approve of or don't. If 300-page amendments are tossed in at the last moment before first passage, they still must face the light of day (many days) before the final vote.
7.12.2009 11:13pm
Brett Marston:

. . . I can't say, "Well, I didn't read the bill, so I didn't know I wasn't allowed to do that." And yet the law may have been passed by people who didn't even know they were outlawing what I did!

That could be true even if those people read the bill. Sometimes law does funny things. That's probably a good argument against textualism or an argument for mitigating the harshness of criminal penalties, but not a great argument for gimmicky pledges or strange procedural mechanisms meant to fill up the legislative calendar and burden the majority party exclusively.
7.12.2009 11:14pm
Guest056 (mail):
David,

Let's say someone on the local level erects some sort of unfair and unwise obstacle to the exercise of your rights -- a poll tax, the requirement of a selectively open ballot -- and you require the passage of a federal law to be secure in your freedoms. Failure to enact good policy as a necessary remedy is no more excusable than failure to properly turn aside poor policy.

You're presupposing that social arenas without legislation will tend toward justice, whereas those with legislation will tend toward injustice. But there is no basis for this. All sorts of rights can be abrogated without the process involved being a matter of settled law.
7.12.2009 11:33pm
MCM (mail):
I did read the link. That's the whole point.
OK wiseass, you should have read the article the link pointed at. If you had, you would have found:

But then your comment wouldn't have been just mindless Adler-bashing.


Wow. By "read the link", I mean I "clicked on the link and read the article that my internet browser subsequently loaded."

Moron.
7.12.2009 11:36pm
SG:
I don't get this at all. [...] If a Member votes no because s/he doesn't understand the bill, that's just as problematic as voting yes while not understanding it.

You don't get it at all? Do you get the precautionary principle? Think of this as the precautionary principle as applied to government. The burden of proof falls to those who would change the status quo.

So while I agree that both are derelictions of duty, if a bill comes up and you haven't read it, you've got to vote yes or no (abstention is a no vote for all practical purposes). So which do you do? Flip a coin? It's my opinion (and it's just an opinion) that if you're going to change things, you should know what you're changing to.
7.12.2009 11:49pm
MCM (mail):
So which do you do? Flip a coin?


I'm not sure how I feel about the issue itself, but this is pretty silly false choice: either (a) the member of Congress has read the bill and can make an informed choice or (b) the member of Congress hasn't read the bill and must make an uninformed choice??

What about (c) they hire someone else to read it and explain what's in it, including pork and unrelated stuff?

I'm not saying I think that's a good thing, I just think think we should stop being completely ridiculous about the topic.
7.13.2009 12:48am
NickM (mail) (www):

What about (c) they hire someone else to read it and explain what's in it, including pork and unrelated stuff?



Compared to what we have now, where it's unclear that ANYONE has actually read the whole bill on certain pieces of major legislation (like the 300-page manager's amendment to Waxman-Markey), that would be nice.

You could also look at the CPSIA from last Congress. How many members had it explained to them that most toy handcrafters would be faced with testing costs that would exceed their revenues?

Relying on committee staff to evaluate the bills is broken as a practice - and the fact the House Judiciary Committee is now under the control of an octogenarian extremist who doesn't want staff who aren't willing to serve as his personal servants has only made matters that much worse.

Nick
7.13.2009 4:02am
David M. Nieporent (www):
What about (c) they hire someone else to read it and explain what's in it, including pork and unrelated stuff?
Speaking of strawmen... obviously the issue isn't whether they physically picked up the piece of paper that the bill is printed on and read it, or whether they paid someone to read it to them. The issue is whether they know what's in the bill that they're voting for.

This controversy didn't arise because a congressman said, "No, I didn't read it personally; my staffer read it and told me what was in it." This controversy arose because congressmen said, "I didn't realize that this bill did this at all." The practices being complained about -- that is, not having the bill available until just before (or even just after) the vote -- prevent their staffers from reading it and explaining what's in it, too.
7.13.2009 4:06am
The River Temoc (mail):
When Congress quite literally divides the labor through the committee process, however, they're simply not doing their jobs.

On the contrary, they are doing their jobs well. Committeess ensure that at least some members develop deep policy expertise that, absent the committee system, no one would develop.

Furthermore, the use of committees dates back to the early 1800s or so -- perhaps not quite the framing moment, but very soon afterwards. Thus, the use of committees is consistent even with a purely originalist interpretation of Congress' role.
7.13.2009 4:47am
The River Temoc (mail):
Relying on committee staff to evaluate the bills is broken as a practice

...what's your basis for making this assertion?

- and the fact the House Judiciary Committee is now under the control of an octogenarian extremist who doesn't want staff who aren't willing to serve as his personal servants has only made matters that much worse.

Even assuming these allegations against Conyers are true, they do not involve the Judiciary Committee staff, but his personal staff. That doesn't change the seriousness of the allegations, but it does cast doubt on your contention that committee staff are incompetent to evaluate legislation.
7.13.2009 5:11am
The River Temoc (mail):
octogenarian extremist

...and your link in support of this epithet is from...Lyndon Larouche? ZOMG.
7.13.2009 5:15am
greyarcher315 (mail):
There are solutions, but they mostly are about limiting the government's power, which the current group of powe mongers have no interest in.
There is no reason the bills have to be written in legalese. One can be quite specific using the proper wording in English. If arcane languauge is required it speaks of keeping the common citizen from understanding the laws. And there should be no need for massive amounts of "add a comma here" or change this phrase to that phrase. There is this thing called proof reading, been around for ages, and is something that all those staffers should be able to help with. I would think the placement of a comma that does not ghange the meaning of a bill should not require a vote.
The main thing we need to do, though, is to elect people that have a sense of honor and duty. If we continue to elect the best mudslinger or snake oil salesman we will continue to get poor results.
7.13.2009 6:38am
rosetta's stones:
Recently, the House global warming bill was the catalyst for this "read the bill" movement. There is zero chance that that kooky global warming bill would have passed, or even been moved, without manipulative legislative shenanigans, pork payoffs, vote buying, and hidden language.

Clearly, that global warming kookiness can't stand on its own 2 feet, so the congresscritters engage in this masquerade, as it is the only possible avenue for the coastal kooks to get their way on this issue.

Of course, Adler is a pom pom waving cheerleader for the global warming kookiness, so it's ironic to see him bleating against the illegitimate legislative shenanigans that this sorta policy fetish will inevitably bring on.
7.13.2009 7:37am
Brett Marston:

the issue isn't whether they physically picked up the piece of paper that the bill is printed on and read it, or whether they paid someone to read it to them.

It is the issue, according to both the Downsize DC folks whose legislative proposal is "worthy of support," according to Jacoby (Adler is not as clear on this point, at least in this post), and according to the freedom ringer's pledge, which is the main focus of Jacoby's article. According to Jacoby (and by extension, Adler), people should "wipe the grin" off Steny Hoyer's face if he believes differently.

Here is the pledge:


"I pledge to my constituents and the American people that I will not vote to enact any healthcare reform package that:
1) I have not read, personally, in its entirety; and
2) Has not been available, in its entirety, to the American people on the Internet for at least 72 hours, so that they can read it too."


The Downsize DC folks are even more extreme.

Jacoby really should know better.
7.13.2009 7:39am
NickM (mail) (www):
Temoc - perhaps you should actually click on the link and read what it goes to. You obviously consider the LaRouchies nuts.

That's their transcript of a speech Conyers gave to their PAC at a fundraising event, PRAISING THEM.

You can even see a picture of him from the speech - standing at a podium that says LaRouchePAC.

ZOMG that.

Nick
7.13.2009 8:02am
pluribus:
David M. Nieporent:

Bloggers have no obligations to anybody except themselves. The analogy, like all the others that try to excuse members of Congress who are derelict in their duties, is faulty.

Bloggers who believe this are, in my opinion, responsible for much of the garbage on the internet. I believe they have some responsibility to the people they're speaking to, at least to try to convey accurate information and express rational opinions. Even commenters like you and me have a responsibility. I don't come here solely to please myself. Of course, I do convey inaccurate information and express thoughtless opinions, more often than I should. But when I do so, it's unintentional and I don't try to justify it on the ground that I have no obligation to anybody but myself. All of us here are trying to influence opinions in one way or another.
7.13.2009 8:34am
pmorem (mail):
Here's a question I've asked before, but I've not seen an answer (sorry if I missed it).

At what point does ignorance of the law become a valid excuse?

It seems to me that being ignorant of a law which was passed without having been read by anyone (or even existing at time of passage) is at least a candidate.

... or is this a job-security (rent-seeking) program for lawyers?
7.13.2009 9:07am
MCM (mail):
Speaking of strawmen...


It's not a strawman if someone actually said it:

So while I agree that both are derelictions of duty, if a bill comes up and you haven't read it, you've got to vote yes or no (abstention is a no vote for all practical purposes). So which do you do? Flip a coin?


They didn't say "if a bill comes up and you're not aware of its contents".
7.13.2009 9:14am
MarkField (mail):

You don't get it at all? Do you get the precautionary principle?


No, I really don't get it. The precautionary principle is one of those nice sounding phrases like motherhood. It doesn't have any meaningful application to the real world. Harm can be done just as readily by inaction as by action.


Speaking of strawmen... obviously the issue isn't whether they physically picked up the piece of paper that the bill is printed on and read it, or whether they paid someone to read it to them. The issue is whether they know what's in the bill that they're voting for.


At least in this thread, there are people arguing that being informed isn't enough, that the Members really do have to read the bills.
7.13.2009 10:54am
SG:
What about (c) they hire someone else to read it and explain what's in it, including pork and unrelated stuff?

At what point does explaining all the pork and unrelated stuff become equivalent to reading the bill? A lot of the unrelated stuff seems to be brief, even single sentence, amendments. I question how well in general a bill can be meaningfully summarized. Pretty much every bill that makes it to the floor will have a decent summary (and a great acronym), but the devil's always in the details.

I'd draw an analogy to SOX. The CEO doesn't have to write the financial reports, but she remains personally liable for any misstatements. By the same token, a legislator could have someone else read and explain it to them, but "I wasn't briefed on that part of the bill" should not be considered a satisfactory answer. Of course, there's no corresponding (direct) consequence to legislators beyond election time (nor, I suppose should there be), but I wish there was such public disdain for that behavior that it became politically unacceptable.

FWIW, I'd rather see a single-issue requirement on legislation than a requirement that each legislator read the bills personally. That seems more germane and more enforceable. But I really don't like the apparently acceptable notion that legislators can and should be expecetd to pass legislation without having read it.
7.13.2009 11:13am
David M. Nieporent (www):
It is the issue, according to both the Downsize DC folks whose legislative proposal is "worthy of support," according to Jacoby (Adler is not as clear on this point, at least in this post), and according to the freedom ringer's pledge, which is the main focus of Jacoby's article. According to Jacoby (and by extension, Adler), people should "wipe the grin" off Steny Hoyer's face if he believes differently.
Come on; that's just a soundbite. "Read the bill before you vote" is a lot snappier than "Read the bill or have someone else read it to you and summarize all operative provisions before you vote," but conveys the same sentiment.

As I said, this controversy didn't arise because a legislator claimed that his staffer read it to him rather than him reading it himself; it arose because bills are being passed that nobody has read, staffer or legislator, and that have provisions that legislators are later claiming that they were entirely unaware of.

If a legislator who made the latter claim fired a staff member for doing a bad job briefing him, that would be one thing; I haven't seen any evidence that such happened though, did you?
7.13.2009 1:31pm
Brett Marston:

Come on; that's just a soundbite. "Read the bill before you vote" is a lot snappier than "Read the bill or have someone else read it to you and summarize all operative provisions before you vote," but conveys the same sentiment.

Are you saying that this is the way you understand the issue, or are you making a claim about Adler, Jacoby, the sponsors of the pledge and the proposed legislation, and most of the pro-Jacoby comments on this site? If it's the former, I think I agree, but if it's the latter, I think you've misread them.

If someone asked Steny Hoyer to pledge that he would understand the operative provisions in the bill before he voted, and that he should encourage his party to do the same, I doubt he would have laughed. That's the heart of this particular political gimmick, I think.
7.13.2009 2:24pm
Brett Marston:

or have someone else read it to you

Wait, do you mean this literally?
7.13.2009 2:26pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
I dunno. Certainly helped Rhode Island's efforts to crack down on prostitution in the late 1970's.....
7.13.2009 3:44pm
JoelP:
I don't understand this analogy between Congressman and CEO. It is certainly true that a CEO does not need to know about the specific bolts used in a specific product. His job is to coordinate the people who coordinate the people who do understand the specific products. But a Congressman is not a manager. His job is to pass or refrain from passing legislation. His analogy should not be to a CEO, it should be to a product design engineer. He should be intimately familiar with each piece of legislation that he votes for. I don't have a problem with having a staffer read it to him if his eyes are faulty, but Cliff's notes shouldn't really cut it.

Additionally, it makes obvious sense that you need to read much more to vote yes than to vote no on a bill. If you find a single major problem with a bill (it might raise taxes, it might promote abortions, it might restrict abortions, it includes an earmark, whatever) then you can vote no with a clean conscience after reading a single problematic paragraph. If you are going to vote yes, then you should know that you approve of the bill as a whole, which requires reading the entire thing.
7.13.2009 7:28pm

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