Sounds like something you'd ask in a third-grade civics class. But an odd editorial in today's Washington Post, takes to task "a group of well-meaning professional activists — and, so far, over nearly 60,000 online petitioners" who have demanded that members of Congress sign a pledge "never to vote on any bill unless they have read every word of it." While the activists "have a point," the Post concedes, their "proposal would bring government to a standstill." No reasonable functioning human being, the Post (correctly) points out, could possibly read every word of every bill that comes out of Congress, and legislators need time to do other things — to "hammer out legislation, draft amendments, interact with constituents, lead hearings . . . At some point, it's fine for members of Congress to rely on expert staff members."
I suspect that there's a fairly clear divide among people on this question. Some, like me, think it's pretty obvious: you can't know what a law means unless you've read its language, and you shouldn't be voting on a law if you don't know what it means. Seems pretty basic, actually. It's a task that, I would think, is primary — drafting amendments, and interacting with constituents, and the many other things members of Congress do, are secondary; Law-Making is what they are in Washington (or, for that matter, in Albany, or Harrisburg, or Springfield) to do, and the idea that they should "rely on experts" to do their job is pretty spectacularly wrong. But I know that there are plenty of people who agree with what the editorial is saying, and who think that there's no point in demanding the impossible.
I'm not a fool - I know full well that not a single member of Congress read every word of, say, the 1,427-page Waxman-Markley energy bill. But I think we give up something valuable if we accept that as acceptable behavior. I guess it didn't occur to the editorialists at the Post that if members of Congress actually tried to live up to this most basic obligation, that 1,427-page long bills would no longer be introduced, which would surely, all other things being equal, be a good thing for the Republic.
[Thanks to the Cato Info Policy newsletter for the pointer]
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- Should Lawmakers, Um, Read the Laws They're Voting On?: