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Should Lawmakers, Um, Read the Laws They're Voting On?:

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]

catullus:
Amen.
9.23.2009 3:06pm
Hank Bowman, MD (mail) (www):
Not only should they read them (and if they're too complicated, large or whatever then they can simplfy) but any registered US voter (from any precinct) should be able to quiz any legislator on what the bill said (page and paragraph) and if they answer incorrectly: Automatic dismissal from their elective seat, and permanent bar from ever holding elective office in the US again.

Well, I can dream too.....
9.23.2009 3:08pm
Nunzio:
I think they all should read every major piece of legislation, such as Patriot Act, NCLB, Medicare D, Waxman-Markey, and whatever health insurance reform bill is presented to the full body for a vote.

On other bills, I can understand relying on staff.

Does anyone think the President should read every word of every bill presented to him for signature or veto?
9.23.2009 3:08pm
Constantin:
Yes.
9.23.2009 3:09pm
Constantin:
If you don't have time to read everything, then you're doing too much stuff.
9.23.2009 3:09pm
ruuffles (mail) (www):
Question: When SG Kagan puts her name on an amicus, does that mean she's read it? Or more generally, if a partner puts his name on a document, does that mean he's read it?
9.23.2009 3:09pm
Steven Lubet (mail):
I guess you just don't believe in running government like a business. (Or do you think that Mitt Romney read every document at Bain Capital?)
9.23.2009 3:12pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
It wouldn't bring government to a standstill.

It would mean that we would value quality of legislation over quantity though. It seems that the Post values quantity over quality.
9.23.2009 3:13pm
Melancton Smith:
I don't think it is too much to ask. Look how terrible the Patriot Act was. I don't care whether the partner of a law firm read an amicus he/she has signed unless I hired them to write it. As a constituent, I have hired my Senator and Representative, in a sense, and in another sense all Senators and Representatives.
9.23.2009 3:13pm
ruuffles (mail) (www):

As a constituent, I have hired my Senator and Representative, in a sense, and in another sense all Senators and Representatives.

Actually, in a sense, a majority of your state or CD hired them. You didn't do anything but vote.
9.23.2009 3:14pm
Mithras Invicti (mail) (www):
This argument makes as much sense as saying that someone who drives a car should know how to make its component parts. But of course Prof. Post's agenda is revealed in his last sentence: It's not that he objects in principle to the elected official relying on his or her staff to grapple with the minutiae of a bill, it's that he prefers simple-minded laws.
9.23.2009 3:14pm
extractor:

Question: When SG Kagan puts her name on an amicus, does that mean she's read it?

It is much more reasonable to expect then congressmen reading all bills. SG office does not produce nearly the volume in amicus that Congress in introduced bills. And SG is a single person and can not hide in the crowd of 435, so he/she has to be more careful about that. Under the circumstances, I'd expect SG to actually read what they sign.
9.23.2009 3:15pm
egd:
To some extent, this is a partisan issue on both sides of the aisle.

I'm sure if you polled the question "Should a public official who lies to his family and other government officials about an extramarital affair be removed from office", you would receive vastly different answers in 1998 (during the Clinton impeachment trial) than you would in 2009 (after Sanford went "hiking the Appalachian Trial").

"RTFB" was a cry from the other side of the aisle not too long ago.
9.23.2009 3:16pm
Mike McDougal:

if a partner puts his name on a document, does that mean he's read it?

In my firm, that is universally true.
9.23.2009 3:16pm
Calderon:
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.

For that to be true from a libertarian perspective we would also need a stronger form of the non-delegation doctrine than the basically non-existent form we have now. Otherwise Congress can write relatively short bills that delegate massive power to agencies in the executive branch. And really, even short bills (such as the Sherman Antitrust Act) can have a huge impact, leaving the judiciary to interpret what they mean which can introduce a lot of uncertainty.
9.23.2009 3:21pm
ruuffles (mail) (www):
As an example, this is what happens when you don't read a bill. It ends up having the potential to bring down the entire military-industrial complex.
9.23.2009 3:21pm
Mithras Invicti (mail) (www):
In any organization of any size and complexity - that is, that does important things - the top managers are generalists, not specialists. They have different skills. Elected representatives are people who are good at communicating with the public. That doesn't mean they're good at drafting legislation. And legislative aides who are good at writing the bills aren't always the best at interacting with the people or at the horsetrading which is a legitimate and completely necessary part of the legislative process.

Put more simply, the idea that a member of Congress should be reading bills line by line is the argument of someone who knows how a legislature works.
9.23.2009 3:22pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
What we have allowed to emerge is the bureaucratization of the legislative process, having members of Congress relegated to high-level supervisors of the work of underlings about whose work they have no detailed knowledge. We may recall how that worked out in the financial sector with derivatives.

I got some insight into this when I was an unpaid independent lobbyist doing volunteer work for several members of Congress, partly as a way to get access and pursue my own agenda, but also to learn how the processes of government.

One can argue that the workload of Congress needs to be greatly reduced by not legislating as much, and I agree to a large degree, but even if Congress were reduced to only constitutional legislation they would still be a bottleneck. Human individuals simply can't process as much information as the situation demands. They don't have the cognitive throughput.

The main solution is to shift the responsibilities of government down toward the local level. We should be having precincts of about 3000 people doing what counties used to be asked to do.
9.23.2009 3:23pm
Connecticut Yankee:
Given that there's very little political support for abolishing the modern regulatory state, wouldn't this proposal just lead members of Congress to pass short bills that delegate the nuts-and-bolks "expert" work to administrative agencies?

A lot of that happens anyway, but I'm not sure that encouraging more would be an improvement.
9.23.2009 3:23pm
ruuffles (mail) (www):
By the way, POGO is the same group that brought you those pictures of contractors doing shots out of each others buttocks.
9.23.2009 3:23pm
Mithras Invicti (mail) (www):
Doh. I meant, "the argument of someone who doesn't know how a legislature works."
9.23.2009 3:23pm
frankcross (mail):
This is just unrealistic. The legislators delegate. Some have expertise in different areas. They trust their expertise. The most naive thing is that if a congressperson read every word, he or should wouldn't understand a huge amount of the bill. Then they would just redelegate, assume the Committee who wrote it knew what they were doing. There would be no difference. There's research showing that this has been going on a long time. Many legislators read the committee report but not the bill itself.

If bills did end up shorter, that would just be a transfer of power from the legislature to the courts, if you like that.
9.23.2009 3:24pm
John (mail):
Term limits would make this more practicable, because politicians would be freed from the overwhelming amount of time they spend fund raising and engaging in their usual corrupt behavior.
9.23.2009 3:24pm
mariner:
I believe that bringing the Federal Government to a standstill would be more good than bad.
9.23.2009 3:25pm
M-Dub (www):
To bring it back to something we were discussing earlier in the week, would you agree with this statement?

The Supreme Court's cert pool should be abolished. After all, you can't know what a [petition] means unless you've read [it], and you shouldn't be voting on [whether to grant cert] if you don't know what it means.
9.23.2009 3:28pm
dave h:
As a citizen, aren't I pretty much required to read every bill signed into law? You never know when the legislature will change the tax code, criminal laws, or traffic laws. Of course, I could rely on an expert to explain the changes, but if the expert turns out to be wrong, do I have a defense?

Seems odd that the person voting on the law would be held to a lower standard than the ones who have to follow it.
9.23.2009 3:32pm
yankee (mail):
Some, like me, think it's pretty obvious: you can't know what a law means unless you've read its language

To me, this premise seems spectacularly wrong. You can know what a law means by having other people summarize it for you. Obviously you won't know every single nuance and detail, but a legislator doesn't need to know every single nuance and detail in order to decide how to vote.
9.23.2009 3:33pm
Jerry Mimsy (www):
Nunzio: Yes. In fact, I think presidents should be required to read out loud every legislation they sign, before they sign it.
9.23.2009 3:38pm
Mikeyes (mail):
The Defund ACORN Act ruffles refers to is short and sweet. Anyone should be able to read it in a minute or so (provided you don't read the names of the geniuses who signed on to it) and when you do, I suspect that you will find that it is truly awful.

Even a congressman (moving his lips) should be able to read this one. Since it passed both houses, I suspect it will be lost in conference.
9.23.2009 3:38pm
Officious Intermeddler:
While the activists "have a point," the Post concedes, their "proposal would bring government to a standstill."


That's a feature, not a bug.
9.23.2009 3:40pm
Daniel San:
The strongest argument here is the libertarian argument that government should be limited to doing a smaller number of things that it can do with some reasonable degree of competence. The problem is not the each legislator doesn't know every detail, it is that some Bills are so complex that no one knows (or can know) every detail. I suspect a health care bill will be passed before there is a thorough, competent evaluation of that Bill by anyone.

I present documents to clients all the time that they will sign without reading. But I review the details with them to make sure they understand what they have read. (And yes, I always advise that they read them, but often that instruction is a formality because the reading would be without the necessary comprehension). I want my legislature to understand what is being voted on -- the broad outlines as well as the important details. If they understand without reading, I am satisfied. Unfortunately, this expectation is also probably unrealistic in light of the volume of legislation.
9.23.2009 3:42pm
Mark N. (www):

As a citizen, aren't I pretty much required to read every bill signed into law?

It's worse than that--- you need to read all the bills and all relevant agency and judicial interpretations. If you want to understand modern employment law, for example, simply reading the text of the statutes would be woefully insufficient.

From that perspective, I'm not sure if shorter laws that Congresspeople can read would actually help make the law comprehensible to normal people. Wouldn't shorter bills that speak less to specific cases just offload even more of that interpretation to courts and agencies? At least if I find in statute a clause that unambiguously speaks to my specific case, buried in some subsubsection, I can be pretty sure where I stand, legally. But if the statute was a short, high-level statute, I would have no idea where I stood without going through the agency rulemaking and caselaw.
9.23.2009 3:43pm
Gonzer Maven (mail):
So what if the legislators read all that stuff? Do you think all of them understand it? Dream on.

We could joke about it, except that later on judges purport to follow legislative intent, rarely, if ever, acknowledging that the law as enacted embodies the intent of staffers, some of whom may be pursuing an agenda different from their bosses'. See Scalia's bon mot that only a legislature with a "stupid staff" fails to come up with rational reasons for its acts.

Which is another reason why an intrusive government that enacts a lot of complex laws, may not be a good idea.
9.23.2009 3:43pm
TNeloms:
What yankee said.

It seems disingenuous to write this post without at least addressing this point. Why isn't a summary (of your staff or of the committee) enough to decide how to vote?

Everyone is pointing out cases of bills that suffered from lack of knowledge of their contents by those who voted on them. So why not just insist that Congresspeople be more familiar with the bills than they have been? Why go to the extreme and insist that they read every word?


As a citizen, aren't I pretty much required to read every bill signed into law? You never know when the legislature will change the tax code, criminal laws, or traffic laws. Of course, I could rely on an expert to explain the changes, but if the expert turns out to be wrong, do I have a defense?

Seems odd that the person voting on the law would be held to a lower standard than the ones who have to follow it.


This seems like a perfect example to illustrate the opposite point: no citizen reads every word of every law, yet most of us are able to get along in society without accidentally committing crimes because we rely on summaries. The DMV's driver's manual is shorter than the actual motor vehicle code in my state, but is definitely sufficient. So it is in fact possible to understand a piece of law without having read all (or any) of the actual words.
9.23.2009 3:44pm
dangerous lack of something something:
You guys are a riot. You think the CEO reads the words of every business contract, even the major ones that shake up a business? They barely read their own compensation contracts.

That's what Legal + Compliance are for - read the fine print, think of more fine print, haggle with other fine-printers just as staffers haggle about farm subsidies.

You think a CEO would deign to crunch the numbers on all the overhead of their business? That's what the CFO + actuaries do. That's what our legislators are - the CEOs of their district - representing the group as a single entity and bargaining with the competitors for tax dollars or influence. Hilarious to think anything else otherwise. They are about as accountable as a CEO is to shareholders.

With all that said, this sort of idea would be valuable in that it would slow down the machine and have less of my money spent as a result. I can agree with that 100%.
9.23.2009 3:45pm
Federal Dog:
"But of course Prof. Post's agenda is revealed in his last sentence: It's not that he objects in principle to the elected official relying on his or her staff to grapple with the minutiae of a bill, it's that he prefers simple-minded laws."

Where was he advocating "simple-minded" laws?
9.23.2009 3:46pm
Ugh (mail):
Has it ever been the case in the history of the republic that every congressperson has read every word of every bill he/she is voting on? My guess is if it was ever true it hasn't been since at least the civil war, more likely earlier than that.
9.23.2009 3:46pm
K. Dackson (mail):

and legislators need time to do other things — to "hammer out legislation, draft amendments, interact with constituents, lead hearings....


Sorry, but isn't actually reading a bill required to be able to "hammer it out"? Or ammend it? Or lead hearings?

Silly me. I guess that lawyer-legislators are far to busy to actually trying to understand the laws that the rest of us are supposed to be able to follow. It used to be that "ignorance of the law is no excuse". It now seems that "ignorance of the law is bliss".

And there was a debate as to why engineers could potentially have problems in law school. It's simple, some of us actually have a professional responsibility to ensure that our work minimizes the negative effects on society.
9.23.2009 3:48pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
When I did volunteer work for members of Congress, much of what I did was reviewing legislation. Then as now, not only do members not have the time to read all bills, their staffers don't either, and both depend on lobbyists like I was at the time, to not only review, but to draft legislation.

A member cannot rely on staffers to draft bills that fulfill his wishes, either. Staffers are like lobbyists, with agendas of their own, or acting as agents for parties other than their members. After all, members come and go but they can't get anything done unless they hire professional staffers who have been on the Hill for a lot longer than the members and have developed their own networks of cronies. When I did reviews I often found bill language that directly contradicted what the member wanted in bills over his name.
9.23.2009 3:48pm
OrinKerr:
For those who think a legislator should be required to read a bill before voting on it, would you also require the legislator to understand the bill? Or is mere reading, with no comprehension, enough? And if comprehension is required, how would you test that? I'm quite curious as to what you have in mind.
9.23.2009 3:54pm
TruePath (mail) (www):
I don't understand. The job of congressmen is to make deciscions about the laws that come before them and introduce beneficial bills. It would be negligent for congressmen to waist their time reading technical details of legislation in areas they lack expertise instead of seeking out trusted advisors and making a better use of that limited time.

I mean there are only three possible options in this case:

1) Congress shouldn't regulate the allowable emissions of chemicals, maximum lead levels in toys, accaptable food additives etc.

2) Congressmen should waste their time reading long lists of chemcial formulas and maximum acceptable levels in various circumstances even though the numerical limits and chemical names would mean nothing to them.

3) Congressmen should instead focus on applying their time effectively representing us and evaluate who they take advice from rather than wasting their time reading things that don't help them evaluate whether to pass the law or not.
9.23.2009 3:57pm
MCMC:
I don't understand how anyone can be AGAINST Legislators doing their jobs. They aren't elected and paid to shake hands and pat each other on the back in the cloak room.

If it is ok for Legislators to delegate their PRIMARY function, then we should have no problem with every other branch of the government delegating their primary functions. Let the Chief of Staff give the State of the Union Speech, let the head of the Sierra Club regulate the environment, and let the Justices have their clerks write, from beginning to final draft, their entire opinions (insert untrue yet funny joke about Justice Thomas and his clerks here).

Perhaps this is ok with some people (and I'm sure its not illegal or necessarily immoral) but in my humble opinion, it seems slightly ridiculous.
9.23.2009 3:57pm
LorenW:
At the very least, committee members should read each bill presented before their committee. If they are not going to be bothered to read the bills, why bother with the committee system. Just bring it up to the whole body.

Certainly, bills which have risen to national attention, should, at the very least, be read by the representatives trusted staff, an executive summary prepared for and read by the representative. Too many times of the summary missing key points should cause the staff member to no longer be trusted.

As for the idea that they have too much work to do, perhaps they should re-read the Constitution and determine that much of what they are doing is not actually within the purview of the Federal government.
9.23.2009 3:58pm
pintler:

no citizen reads every word of every law, yet most of us are able to get along in society without accidentally committing crimes because we rely on summaries


With respect, I'm not sure that's accurate. Most of us get along without being charged because no one is looking at us hard.
9.23.2009 3:59pm
LN (mail):

the overwhelming amount of time they spend fund raising and engaging in their usual corrupt behavior.


Now now. Fund raising is not corrupt, it's just listening to free speech.
9.23.2009 3:59pm
Alex S. (mail):
Shouldn't they first have to read and memorize the entire US Code and Federal Register so that when they read a bill they understand exactly what it is changing and all of the possible cross impacts?

And there is the fact that even if they've read the entire bill in question most of them are not personally expert enough in the subject area to be able to make realistic evaluations of the effectiveness of what it strives to do (or even if it really attempts to do what it ostensibly claims).

So, even if they do read every line they are still going to be relying on the experts on their staff to a huge extent.

Sure, it would be great if they did read every line of every page and personally do the research to make sure they understood it perfectly but since that isn't realistically possible I don't see much value in getting upset about it. I'm not that concerned about a congressman not having read the entirety of a bill so long as they appear to have a proper understanding of it. Conversely, I'm not happier about someone who appears to have no understanding of what is in a bill just because I know for a fact that s/he read it thoroughly.
9.23.2009 4:00pm
MCMC:
For those who think a legislator should be required to read a bill before voting on it, would you also require the legislator to understand the bill? Or is mere reading, with no comprehension, enough? And if comprehension is required, how would you test that? I'm quite curious as to what you have in mind.



Professor Kerr,

I think that you are correct when you imply that there is no good way to require legislators to read the bill, and even if there were a good way to require legislators to read the bill, there would be no way to measure any requirement that they "understand" what they read.

The solution is definitely not in any enforceable requirements. It just seems that this should be something relevant to constituents when they are making political decisions.
9.23.2009 4:01pm
ruuffles (mail) (www):

They barely read their own compensation contracts.

Winner.
9.23.2009 4:01pm
ruuffles (mail) (www):

The Defund ACORN Act ruffles refers to is short and sweet. Anyone should be able to read it in a minute or so (provided you don't read the names of the geniuses who signed on to it) and when you do, I suspect that you will find that it is truly awful.

Of course, the more detailed and specific they make it, the more likely it is to get struck down by a court as a bill of attainder.
9.23.2009 4:02pm
Randy R. (mail):
And of course, all of you can confidently say that you have read every word of a proposed referendum and was fully informed on all issues. Furthermore, you were all fully aware of each candidate's position on all the issues before you voted for or against him or her, right?

And if you didn't, well, it's not like it's a paying job, right?
9.23.2009 4:03pm
gattsuru (mail) (www):
I don't think I care whether Ted "Series of Tubes" Stevens read a bill on net neutrality before he voted on it, nor whether Mrs. "Shoulder Thing that goes Up" McCarthy or Mrs. "What Rule 3" Pelosi devote the time to looking through the paperwork before voting. Whether or not you believe this lacks of understanding are significant faults in general (Mr. Stevens' metaphor, for example, was a reasonable lies-to-children explanation that simply broke down in more complicated scenarios than FIFO queueing, and most people even using firearms don't give a damn what a barrel shroud is), without understanding what an individual is actually legislating, there's no point. Reading with comprehension, to borrow the teacher's saying, is a moot point.

We have a representative democracy precisely because no one person could understand the wide variety of matters that come before them, and a pure democracy would provide little reason for individual voters to restrain themselves to matters that they do understand. A large but reasonably sized number of representatives who understand the limits of their knowledge can easily find individuals willing to provide accurate information to the point where these individuals representing us can understand what they're going to do to us.

It needs to be more than read. It needs to be read and understand.

Will this slow down the federal (and many state) governments? You bet. That's scarcely something that I'll find worrying when the same rules slow down everyone else that must try to observe them and their endless permutations and penumbras.
9.23.2009 4:03pm
Donald Clarke (www):
It may be true in a literal sense that "if members of Congress actually tried to live up to this most basic obligation, ... 1,427-page long bills would no longer be introduced." But this doesn't mean that the rules in those bills would never appear on the American legal landscape.

If you don't like what's in those long bills, it doesn't follow that that would that be "a good thing for the Republic". Congressional bills are long because they are full of details. If Congress can't put the details in, it will delegate the task to an administrative agency. Is it better for the Republic to have details filled in by administrative agencies? You could say yes, because they have expertise Congress doesn't have, and Congress shouldn't be meddling in the details; you could say no, because they're full of unaccountable bureaucrats. If your inclination is toward the latter answer, then long, detailed bills are probably better for the Republic than short, general ones. You can't finesse the question by just imagining that Congress would legislate on fewer subjects if members had to read all bills.
9.23.2009 4:05pm
TNeloms:

pintler:

With respect, I'm not sure that's accurate. Most of us get along without being charged because no one is looking at us hard.


That's true, but I feel confident that the only laws I break are the ones I know I'm breaking (e.g., speeding, etc.).

Obviously, I could be wrong and wouldn't know it. Can you give me an example of a law that many people unknowingly break?
9.23.2009 4:07pm
Ariel:
A couple of folks here have commented on what CEOs do or don't do. I'm not sure that they're speaking from firsthand experience. Every CEO or President of a company I've ever met will always check at least some of the details. They're often extremely detail oriented folks. And even if they're not, they want to push you on it, at least once, to prove to them that you're going to make sure all of the details are right, and that they can trust you to do so.

What typically happens is that the CEO will randomly check some things to make sure the details are right. His underlings will get the message, and do likewise. This cascades down. Overall, the operation is run in a detail-oriented manner as a consequence. If you have corporate experience, you will know this.

There's no comparable pyramid for Congress. I can see the arguments above for why you may still be ok with them not reading every word, but the arguments that CEOs don't is simply not a valid (i.e., true) argument.
9.23.2009 4:08pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
TNeloms:

no citizen reads every word of every law, yet most of us are able to get along in society without accidentally committing crimes because we rely on summaries.

Actually, most of us have probably committed numerous crimes, some felonies, out of ignorance of the details of all the statutes that have been enacted. It is just that most of us don't get targeted for conviction. I know several dissenters who have been targeted, the agents instructed to "get him on something", with the implication that if they can't find something they are incompetent, or need to fabricate something.

If they want to get you, they will, because you probably have done something and just didn't know it.

I remember a radio program from about 1952, in which the host asked the contestants in a kind of treasure hunt to perform a set of ordinary tasks, with the prize going to whoever broke the fewest laws along the way. No one won. The closest anyone came was to break one law -- he failed to tear all the way through the stamp over the end of a box of cigarettes he had been asked to buy and smoke one of. There was a law against that.


There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power government has is the power to crack down on criminals. When there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.
— Ayn Rand
9.23.2009 4:08pm
tbaugh (mail):
"Question: When SG Kagan puts her name on an amicus, does that mean she's read it? Or more generally, if a partner puts his name on a document, does that mean he's read it?"

I don't know, but I hope so, but in any event, they aren't enacting laws to govern the rest of us. More to the point, "when a court issues an opinion does that mean that the judges have read it?" I would certainly think that's a minimum requirement.
9.23.2009 4:10pm
CheckEnclosed (mail):
What does it mean to say you read every line of a piece of legislation if some of the lines say (and I am making this up) "Title 24 U.S.C. §1453(a)(2)(B)(iii) is repealed; and Title 35 U.S.C. §45(p) is amended to read "more than 350 bushels per acre" rather than "twice the amount specified in 24 U.S.C. §1453(a)(2)(B)(iii)"?
9.23.2009 4:10pm
yankee (mail):
If you don't like what's in those long bills, it doesn't follow that that would that be "a good thing for the Republic". Congressional bills are long because they are full of details. If Congress can't put the details in, it will delegate the task to an administrative agency.
Either that or it will legislate in broad generalities that leave the meaning of the bill to the courts. The Sherman Act is very short and easily read. But because key terms like "restraint of trade" are so vague, all the real content has been added by the courts.
9.23.2009 4:11pm
Brian Garst (www):
Just as a practical matter, I don't really mind them delegating some of that responsibility to staff. But the argument isn't just that Congressman didn't read Cap-and-Trade while their staff did, it's that no one could have possibly read it in the time it was amended and passed.

As a principled matter I agree and support making the Congressmen read it themselves because I want government to be brought to a standstill (using their hyperbolic description). Modern day government is clearly lacking in deliberation, and anything that forces them to do more of it, and to write smaller, more comprehensible legislation, is a good thing.
9.23.2009 4:11pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
LorenW:

At the very least, committee members should read each bill presented before their committee. If they are not going to be bothered to read the bills, why bother with the committee system. Just bring it up to the whole body.

Because committees have their own staffers distinct from those of the separate members.
9.23.2009 4:12pm
Guest12345:

To me, this premise seems spectacularly wrong. You can know what a law means by having other people summarize it for you. Obviously you won't know every single nuance and detail, but a legislator doesn't need to know every single nuance and detail in order to decide how to vote.


If a summary is enough to understand the "bill", then the summary should be the bill. All the extra verbiage that isn't necessary should be carved into stone tablets and dropped on whoever it was that added it into the bill in the first place.

I'm also in concurrence with those who point out that if citizens are expected to understand and abide by the laws passed by congress, then congress should be expected to understand it before voting. As citizens, congressmen are (supposedly) required to obey the law. Presumably that is only possible if they understand the law. So is it too much to ask that they gain that understanding before they make it the law of the land? I mean if they have to understand it anyway...
9.23.2009 4:12pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):

Question: When SG Kagan puts her name on an amicus, does that mean she's read it? Or more generally, if a partner puts his name on a document, does that mean he's read it?



Whether they’ve actually read it or not, if it an issue comes up with something contained in either the amicus or document, they will almost always be treated as if they read it and be responsible for its contents.
9.23.2009 4:13pm
Brian Garst (www):

If you don't like what's in those long bills, it doesn't follow that that would that be "a good thing for the Republic". Congressional bills are long because they are full of details. If Congress can't put the details in, it will delegate the task to an administrative agency. Is it better for the Republic to have details filled in by administrative agencies? You could say yes, because they have expertise Congress doesn't have, and Congress shouldn't be meddling in the details; you could say no, because they're full of unaccountable bureaucrats.


You seem to ignore completely the possibility that Congress, and the government in general, could stop meddling in the day-to-day minutiae of all aspects of our lives.
9.23.2009 4:15pm
Mike S.:
OK. What fraction of Congressmen have a staff member who has read every line of a major bill? Is there anyone on Earth who has read every line of one of the larger omnibus appropriations bills? Genreally these things are done be divide and conquer even at the staff level. the result is that bills sometimes have conflicting language or places where two pieces don't fit together right. And someone deals with it when and if it gets noticed.
9.23.2009 4:16pm
Eli Rabett (www):
All three people in the universe who have read every software shrinkrap contract they uploaded can be for this. Lawyers who want simpler laws should write simpler contracts first. OTOH, the reason laws and contracts are complicated is to defend against sharpie lawyers trying to find holes.
9.23.2009 4:16pm
Fub:
Officious Intermeddler wrote at 9.23.2009 3:40pm:
That's a feature, not a bug.
Exactly. I've never understood the view that government should do more and more things. I'd settle for government doing only a few things right.
9.23.2009 4:17pm
Pepper:
This whole discussion is completely ridiculous. Why does it even matter if members of the congress read/understand/memorize/etc. a given bill? Can we not rely on the instincts of members of the Congress as utility/vote/campaign fund maximizing individuals to vote according to whatever heuristic that they were using for any other bill? Ultimately, there is a punishment mechanism for the rogue member of the Congress who votes to the detriment of his or her constituency (increased risk of unemployment after the next election); setting prerequisites to voting like the 'read every word' idea are ultimately comical and unnecessary.
ASIDE: Suppose that a member of the Congress had to read every bill personally before voting. Then those constituencies with a representative with a faster reading speed would, presumably, have more influence than those with a slower reading speed as they would be able to vote on a weakly greater number of bills. Would voters see reading speed advertised during campaigns?
9.23.2009 4:18pm
yankee (mail):
If a summary is enough to understand the "bill", then the summary should be the bill.

Why?
9.23.2009 4:18pm
Waste (mail):
Not only should they be required to read them. They should be required to write them. Instead they have staffers and/or lobbysists do both for them.

Frankly it's their job. The derive a great many benefits from their job. They should do it. If they can't be bothered to read and write the laws, then they should not be voting on them.
9.23.2009 4:20pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
Rep. Ron Paul has an effective way to manage his legislative workload. If he isn't given enough time to read the bills he votes against them. (Of course, he usually votes against bills he does have time to read, as well.)
9.23.2009 4:22pm
David Schwartz (mail):
Ariel: In what way do you think that's different from the way most Senators run their offices?
9.23.2009 4:24pm
ShelbyC:

All three people in the universe who have read every software shrinkrap contract they uploaded can be for this.


Well, we have wordy shrinkwrap contracts for exactly one reason: Cheap printing. We got along fine without them when a big wordy contract cost a fortune to print. And we can get along fine without big wordy laws, too. Hell, up untill WWII the average cost of the federal govt in today's dollars was ~$500 per person.
9.23.2009 4:26pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
I’m agnostic on requiring that legislator read every word of every bill largely because while I oppose most omnibus bills, I can easily see members of Congress “punting” the hard decisions to either an administrative agency or the courts to hash out.


Although come to think of it, that’s what both HR 3200 and the Baucus bills already do by creating a Medicare Commission to make the tough choices about future spending “cuts.” So it looks like right now we have the worst of both worlds.


One thing I would like to see is a change in the way that bills are written so that it mirrors the way that my own State of Minnesota drafts legislation which is to include the new text and show strikethroughs in existing statutes so that you can more easily see how the law has been changed instead of having to rifle through a statute book every time it references a law that it changes. This would most likely make the text of the bills longer but easier to read and follow along the changes.
9.23.2009 4:26pm
Borris (mail):
Apparently reading laws, like paying taxes, is for The Little People, not our betters in the Democratic Congress.
After all they are smarter than us, better than us, and more moral than us. In fact we are just unruly teenagers that our Democratic betters have to educate.
9.23.2009 4:27pm
TruePath (mail) (www):
As a follow up I'd just like to point out that most people who support this kind of measure seem to be equating bills with things like criminal penalties for theft or politically charged issues like the defund acorn bill. However, a lot of bills congress passes simply aren't like that.

Our buesnesses need legal clarity to be competitive so it's simply not an option to pass laws saying things like, "don't put lead into childrens toys in concentrations that pose a risk to children." Does a video games system count as a children toy or is that for adults? Risk of what? How much risk? One could go on and on.

The situation is even worse in tax law. Concepts like buisness costs or even income simply don't have a principled definition and the government has a responsibility to give clear guidance to individuals and corporations about their tax obligations. You can't provide that, especially for complex fiscal products, without exhaustively long details.

I mean someone in the government has to tell us what the precisce rules are in these technically complex areas.
9.23.2009 4:27pm
t. simenon (mail):
Reading this thread I realize that few people actually understand how and by who legislation is literally written.
9.23.2009 4:30pm
Guest12345:
yankee:

If a summary is enough to understand the "bill", then the summary should be the bill.

Why?


Are you suggesting that all legislation should be padded out to seventy-five thousand pages of quotes from the Bible, the Koran, the works of Shakespeare, Wikipedia and other random text that has no bearing on the bill? Because my point is that a bill should be no longer than necessary to convey the point. If a congressman can read a ten page summary of a twelve hundred page bill and fully grasps the bill, then there are about one thousand, one hundred and ninety pages of unnecessary text included. Either that or they don't actually understand the bill.
9.23.2009 4:33pm
Alan P (mail):
I strongly doubt that the law professors on this board even read every word that their students put in their blue books; yet they grade the answers nonetheless.

Arguing over reading every word in a Bill in Congress is just the kind of silliness that turns serious policy debates into irrelevance.
9.23.2009 4:35pm
yankee (mail):
If a congressman can read a ten page summary of a twelve hundred page bill and fully grasps the bill, then there are about one thousand, one hundred and ninety pages of unnecessary text included. Either that or they don't actually understand the bill.
I didn't say they would "fully grasp" the bill by reading a summary; a summary isn't going to give you every nuance and detail. But legislators don't need to understand every nuance and detail just to know how to vote.
9.23.2009 4:39pm
RichW (mail):
Okay, based on some personal experience, CEO's may read some but not all of the contracts that come across their desk. They though will get a summary from the lawyer on what it is saying and read parts of the contract.
I would not expect a congress critter to read all the bills but I would expect him to read and understand the summaries provided by his staff, and to discuss it with those staff members. I was in the software industry and we often had two people or groups of people do any analysis, not systems design analysis but evaluative analysis, just so we would potentially have conflicting views. This was key to understanding the possible effect of doing something.
There is the argument that the system is set up to overwhelm congress critters so they can not read everything and things could then be:
a. Slipped in without anyone knowing.
b. Delegated to some faceless bureaucrat, so one has plausible deniability.
c. Allow the congress critter to say they are doing something without having to actually do anything.
Personally, I think it is all three.
9.23.2009 4:39pm
~aardvark (mail):
The concern is rarely about "lawmakers" reading the text of anything they are voting on--I'd venture a guess that, if it has more than three sentences, they don't read it at all.

But their aides read it, in pieces. Given sufficient number of individual legislator and committee aides, even the longest bills (the printing is done fairly loosely, with huge margins, double spaced, so even a thousand bill pages translates to maybe 120 book pages). It does not take 48 hours for all the pages to be read by the aides, if the bill has particular importance.

But Sen. Roberts accidentally nailed it earlier today when he essentially referred to lobbyists as those needing time to read the bill and tell the Senators their opinions and options. This is ludicrous! Lobbyists are not constituents--they are influence peddlers (and bribers). They have a right to see the bill, just like everyone else. But delaying the vote to allow lobbyists to pick it over should not be a part of the democratic process.

Every bill should have a reasonable amount of time for reading--perhaps proportional to the length of the bill. But using delaying tactics to get lobbyists' opinions (and to squeeze them for more money) should be off-limits.
9.23.2009 4:42pm
The Unbeliever:
While the activists "have a point," the Post concedes, their "proposal would bring government to a standstill."
Well, that does it; the Post convinced me. Let's fast-track their proposal into law.
9.23.2009 4:43pm
Randy R. (mail):
I would go further. I would require that any person who wants to write a letter to the editor, or blog, or go on tv and talk about a piece a legislation, should have to actually read it first.

This way, we might be able to avoid the nonsense like the 'death panels.' But then, I'm not sure Sarah Palin would actually be able to read the requirement that she read a bill before commenting on it.
9.23.2009 4:44pm
Recovering Law Grad:
I love references to "the Republic."

What does this signify (other than that the speaker has a premium membership on the Glenn Beck website)?
9.23.2009 4:46pm
DiversityHire (mail):
Reading this thread I realize that few people actually understand how and by who legislation is literally written.
That's another thread: "Should Lawmakers, Um, Write the Laws They're Voting On?" Perhaps they could be combined into: "Should Lawmakers, Um, Make the Laws They're Voting On?"

I strongly doubt that the law professors on this board even read every word that their students put in their blue books; yet they grade the answers nonetheless.
Seems legislators are more like the students in this analogy, which would make the courts the professors, which would make the question "should judges read the laws they are interpreting?" And the question for legislators would be analogous to "should students submit papers they haven't written, read, or understood?"
9.23.2009 4:47pm
extractor:

You seem to ignore completely the possibility that Congress, and the government in general, could stop meddling in the day-to-day minutiae of all aspects of our lives.

Not possible. It is called power and power is addictive and not relinquished voluntarily.
9.23.2009 4:50pm
Guest12345:
t. simenon:

Reading this thread I realize that few people actually understand how and by who legislation is literally written.


I think that people do understand the process, but are dissatisfied by it.

If it was up to me this would be the requirements for any piece of legislation to get voted on or signed:

1) Once written it would be printed and bound. A copies would be sent to the library of congress as pending legislation. A digital copy would be made and signed with a digital key and made available to the public. No changes are allowed to the legislation without coming back to step 1.

2) The legislation is then brought before the relevant body and is read aloud with every member in attendance. No sleeping, no telephone calls, no blackberry, no ipods, no novels, no chatting with other congressmen, no ducking out for emergencies. Anyone violating those rules would be prodded with pointy sticks wielded by citizens pressed into service a la jury duty. Any legislator violating the rules five times would immediately be ejected from office and permanently barred from holding a job in the public sector, either by election or appointment. Any misreadings would bench the whole process to begun again the next day from page one of the legislation.

3) Once both houses had voted according to the process in 2, the president would be given a printed copy and would proceed to read it word for word on camera. Any misreadings would bench the whole process to begun again the next day from page one. Once successfully read in full, then it could be signed into law.

The other wonderful thing that would be in my fantasy world is a national Ass Kicking Day where a citizen could put their name into a lottery for any/all of the president, vice president, their state's senators or their district's representative. If selected they would get to go to the capitol on Ass Kicking Day and put the boot in. Just for the benefit of the elected pols to understand that they aren't above the people.
9.23.2009 4:57pm
John M. Perkins (mail):
I petition that David Post read every IP case, brief, article, treatise and blog post before teaching any issue in IP.
9.23.2009 4:59pm
Kirk Lazarus:
I think a tradition worth reviving is that the speaker be required to memorize the law and recite it annually.
9.23.2009 5:01pm
Brooks Lyman (mail):
One can say that the process of legislation is ultimately self-correcting, in that eventually the bad parts of l;aws get changed or eliminated and the legislators who promoted them get replaced.

The problem is, That this process can take years. The Gun Control Act of 1968, passed in a white heat after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, had a number of really bad sections which were not changed until 1986 - 18 years. In the meantime, you had people being prosecuted for actions which should not be (and weren't before 1968 or after 1986) considered criminal.

The dangers of writing short "outline" legislation and letting the bureaucrats fill in the details is that in many cases, the regulations change the intent or the effect of the statute. So it's probably better to have all the details spelled out in the legislation.

In a better world - and one we should work toward - the legislators would craft a bill that was both short and complete. Surely it's not necessary to fill our law books with reams hundreds of pages of thick legalese. It has always seemed to me, that short and comprehensive are not mutually exclusive, although I will admit that it's probably easier to write endless legal prose instead of making the compositional effort to write short legal prose.

Certainly, Our lawmakers - at all levels - tend to pass far too many laws, most of which are not really needed. The United States has been functioning for over 200 years and the common law has been evolving for many more centuries. It seems to me, that most of the bases are already covered.
9.23.2009 5:13pm
Eric Chibnik (mail):
If a legislator is relying on a summary that is developed by his or her staff, they should then post that summary so that their constituents can see it, ideally well before they vote on it. I would think that summary would be fairly detailed. On something like the Health Care bills now before the chambers, you would think the summary itself would be 50 - 100 pages. If they posted something that was 2-3 pages, you would know that your congressman really has no idea what he is signing. You would also then be able to hold them somewhat accountable when the law took affect.
9.23.2009 5:15pm
Leo Marvin (mail):
As so often happens, Frank Cross and Orin introduce some common sense amidst the pitchforks and torches.
9.23.2009 5:16pm
Ari Taz:
Professor Kerr,

Your point is well taken, but on the other hand, doesn't that question apply to the other side as well? For those who argue that legislators need not read bills - that being a task better suited to expert subordinates - should legislators be required to understand ANY of the bills before Congress? If so, then how much? And how would we measure that? And if you say they really SHOULDN'T have to understand any of the bills before Congress, then can't we just dispense with floor debate completely?
9.23.2009 5:18pm
CJColucci:
I'm not a fool

Can anyone vouch for that?
9.23.2009 5:21pm
Ari Taz:
Professor Cross,

I don't know if your point is incompatible with David Post's view. You're right that, following David Post's reasoning, the court would play a greater role in interpreting laws. But in the case where the courts' interpretations of certain laws conflicted with what elected lawmakers conceive of as the public interest, they might simply respond with new legislation to correct the interpretation. This process would be easier, because under David Post's system, bills would be shorter.

You might respond that in this scenario legislation would end up accumulating anyway, but it would certainly amount to much less than now - just think about how much of any given bill before Congress in the last couple of years is essential to what the bill actually is mean to accomplish.

This system sounds pretty absurd to me, but that might just be become I'm so used to the status quo.
9.23.2009 5:25pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Ruufles:

As an example, this is what happens when you don't read a bill. It ends up having the potential to bring down the entire military-industrial complex.


Honestly, I think that is REALLY funny. But honestly, who is going to vote on removing a fraud provision because "so many of our important contractors do it?"
9.23.2009 5:27pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Kirk Lazarus:

I think a tradition worth reviving is that the speaker be required to memorize the law and recite it annually.


In Republican Iceland, the tradition was a little laxer. One still had to memorize the entire code, but only had to recite a specific third of it on any given year. That third of course rotated so that by the end of the three year term, the whole work was recited.
9.23.2009 5:29pm
TNeloms:

Jon Roland:

If they want to get you, they will, because you probably have done something and just didn't know it.


Point taken. But the lesson there is that there are too many laws that govern unexpected activities for people to know about, not that the only way to know these laws is to read the legal code. One could just as easily (or probably more easily!) know about the prohibition on partially tearing the stamp on cigarette boxes by someone giving them a brief summary of the law rather than reading the actual words of the law. Sure, some laws can't be succinctly summarized, but many can.

If you want to reduce the scope and complexity of laws passed by Congress, say so from the beginning and don't make these other arguments about reading the words of the bills. The only reason reason to make those arguments is that they sound good rhetorically ("Is it too much to ask a Senator to do his job?!?") but substantively they shouldn't be made. It seems totally reasonable to be able to rely on the summaries and judgments of others in voting on legislation.
9.23.2009 5:37pm
Gary McGath (www):
A friend told me that Congress can't read all the bills, because they're too complicated, and besides, they have staff to read the bills for them. On another occasion he told me that the running of the economy can't be left to private businesses because it's too complicated. Combined, those seem to say that the economy is so complicated that it has to be run by unelected appointees.
9.23.2009 5:45pm
ray_g:
"I think a tradition worth reviving is that the speaker be required to memorize the law and recite it annually."


"Are we not men!?"
9.23.2009 5:51pm
ray_g:
"The Defund ACORN Act ruffles refers to is short and sweet. Anyone should be able to read it in a minute or so (provided you don't read the names of the geniuses who signed on to it) and when you do, I suspect that you will find that it is truly awful. "

OK, in less than 5 minutes I read it twice. While I don't see anything particularly great about it, it is not obvious that is is "truly awful" either. I don't see how adding more detail would make it any better. Or do you just object to it's purpose? In that case, length would seem to be irrelevant.
9.23.2009 5:57pm
Allan L. (mail):
Nothing should be enacted that is not amenable to being read by the legislators voting for it. But there is nothing wrong with voting against a bill on the grounds of not having read, or been able to read, the text of it.
9.23.2009 6:03pm
Neo (mail):
Bow-tie wearing Joe Clark, the Congressman in Murtha's district before John Murtha, was the last Congressman known to have actually read all the bills he voted on.
I don't know how he did it.
A 48 or 72 hour freeze of the legislation prior to final passage doesn't sound like it would end the world. A super majority could override.
9.23.2009 7:00pm
Steve in Colorado (mail):
IMO, legislators should not have to read every bill they vote on. They should read the entirety of every bill they vote "yes" on. And sign an affidavit to that effect. No, it won't stop the dishonest legislators, but maybe the honest ones will slow the legislative process a bit.
9.23.2009 7:00pm
Titus Andronicus:
In all fairness, maybe we should only ask legislators to read every bill before voting on final passage: the task becomes far less daunting if they don't have to read every piece of paper that goes into the hopper.
9.23.2009 7:08pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
RichW:

I would not expect a congress critter to read all the bills but I would expect him to read and understand the summaries provided by his staff

Most "summaries" are delivered orally and often are little more than a brief answer to the question "What is the bill title and should I vote for it?" And often he is only asking a lobbyist and not a staffer at all, because as I said, there aren't enough staffers to cover all the bills. A member of the House often last less than 4-5 legislative staff, preferring to use his allocation for admin staff. Senators don't have many more.
9.23.2009 7:28pm
Gringo (mail):
I would settle for Congressmen reading twenty percent of what vote on. It certainly beats the current average of well below one percent.

Regarding the proclamations, such as calling November 45th (deliberate) "Honor B. J. Moose of Frostbite Falls Day," certainly no need to read them.

But this nonsense of passing thousand page bills without having an idea of what it means, simply because it is sponsored by your party, has got to stop.

As others have pointed out, "ignorance of the law is no excuse" is what government agents tell citizens who fall in trouble with the law, which is not hard to do considering the hundreds of thousands of pages of local, state, and federal laws and regulations. The same rule should be applied to our legislators.

Then they might pass fewer but higher quality laws.
9.23.2009 7:34pm
Kev (mail) (www):
Not only should they be required to read them. They should be required to write them. Instead they have staffers and/or lobbysists do both for them.
Agreed. It's way past time to get the lobbyists a bit farther from the final product. They can give their "advice" in the early stages, but the finished bill needs to be written by the elected official him/herself, not someone who's unelected and thus unaccountable. (And lobbyists shouldn't be allowed to spend a dime on legislators, either--no trips, not even lunch--but that's another thread for another time.)

Frankly it's their job. The derive a great many benefits from their job. They should do it. If they can't be bothered to read and write the laws, then they should not be voting on them.
As others have said, this is best solved by term limits.

I also agree with everything Guest12345 said at 4:57.
9.23.2009 7:36pm
Doug Collins (mail):
Amidst all the quibbles about whether legislator or staff need to read the bills, or whether a short bill would give too much power to the bureaucracy, a more important underlying question is being obscured. I.e: Are our senators and representatives frequently voting in a state of ignorance of what they are voting on?
It is difficult to understand how anyone could argue that this is a virtue. Whether the legislator, his staffers or some other 'expert' has the job, when a 300 page addition is introduced at 2 AM and voted on before printed copies are available to anyone, it is obvious that we are flying blind.
If this is the best we can do, perhaps we should think about programming an Expert System for legislating into an ubercomputer and letting it run the Congress. We couldn't do much worse than we are doing now.
9.23.2009 7:41pm
PlugInMonster:
I'm against everything that Congress excretes since 1909. I say down with Congress, bring back the noble monarch! He'll rule us well and wisely.
9.23.2009 8:23pm
PlugInMonster:
Gringo - because liberal Democrat voters know that HR 3200 is good, the unknown details are a feature, not a bug.
9.23.2009 8:24pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
TNeloms:

But the lesson there is that there are too many laws that govern unexpected activities for people to know about, not that the only way to know these laws is to read the legal code.

Yes, and there is also the problem that an enforcer may interpret the langugage differently than you would. For an amusing story about that see How I celebrated Constitution Day (and almost got arrested).
9.23.2009 8:45pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
What about the question of whether judges read all the decisions they sign, drafted either by clerks, magistrates, or parties? I have seen judges of trial courts sign orders prepared by parties without reading them (because the lawyer had an "in" with the judge).

It would be interesting to get a count of how many persons have actually died as a result of words not being read or understood by officials. One suspects the numbers may be in the millions in some countries. How about ours in the last century or so?
9.23.2009 9:06pm
MarkJ (mail):
Funny thing, the legislative geniuses who are "too busy" to read 1,000 page bills are the same guys who go over their mortgages and car purchase agreements with electron microscopes.

Maybe we should pass a constitutional amendment specifically stating that congressmen who can't, or won't, read the bills on which they vote...will be forced to sign everything, personal or official, put in front of them without being allowed to read it first.

Hilarity should quickly ensue!
9.23.2009 9:16pm
Melancton Smith:
ruufles wrote:

Actually, in a sense, a majority of your state or CD hired them. You didn't do anything but vote.


But isn't our government of the people, by the people and for the people or did I wake up under a different form of government?

As for snagging certain defense contracts, I say, "Yay!"

Orin,
I care not whether they read the bill, a summary of the bill, or even comprehend it. The point is, they own it if they vote for it and cannot say "oops, I didn't read that portion of the bill". See Patriot Act and Porkulus.
9.23.2009 10:32pm
Wicakte (mail):
I think we're overlooking something. The problem is not so much that a legislator does, or does not, read all of the bill himself. The problem is that the bills are being passed before ANYONE can review them in their entirety.

It's alright, in my opinion, to rely on "review by others," but for that to work, the "others" must have time enough to review the bills and raise objections.

I think that there should be a requirement that a bill in the form in which is to be approved or disapproved be publicly posted for some "reasonable length of time" before
Congress can vote on the bill. IF it is amended, then it most be posted in its amended form for the "reasonable length of time" before it can receive a final vote.

I'd suggest that the "reasonable length of time" should be dependent on the bill's length. While it's true that a lengthy bill can be reviewed by "splitting it into parts," the longer it is, the more need there is for those reviewing parts of the bill to discuss it with others in their "review group" (which might be as informal as a bunch of citizens who share concerns.) The required posting time should be something like "one day per ten pages, or one day per 50 pages." Yes, that might delay a major bill by a month, but what piece of complex legislation is so critical that a month's delay matters? If there is some critical thing (like emergency repairs to a dam, or whatever) that limited piece can be passed in a simple short bill, and folded into the larger legislation.

What really bothers me about the way Congress is working now, is that there is not time for ANYONE to review the bills before they are passed.

A major reason I was opposed to the last attempt at "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" was that Bush, McCain, Kennedy, et al, wanted to rush it through Congress in a couple of weeks. Anything that complex deserves more scrutiny and debate.

An excellent discussion here, many thanks
9.23.2009 10:40pm
Ariel:
David Schwartz,

Ariel: In what way do you think that's different from the way most Senators run their offices?

I have no idea. I don't know anything about how Senators run their offices. Likewise, many people here have no idea how CEOs run businesses. If you've worked with a CEO, or even someone 1-2 steps down, you couldn't post many of the things here.

I assume, and hope, that a Senator's office would be similar. But I don't have that firsthand experience.
9.24.2009 12:43am
David Schwartz (mail):
Suppose some law has many pages of complicated formulas. The example of an environmental protection law that lists emissions targets for substances or for regions or lists species that will be protected or whatever is a good example.

There is simply no point in a non-expert reading that bill. But the list also has to be in the law.

What a diligent representative should do is ensure that the bill is dissected by experts on all sides of the issue. Any details that are non-controversial, he can ignore or just accept a summary.

However, if there are controversial issues, then will need to, at a minimum, analyze in detail at least representative samples of the parts that are controversial.

However, it does him no good to review endless details that are not controversial. His time is better spent letting experts or stakeholders on all sides tell him what their issues are. Of course, he should always refer to the text itself where necessary to resolve such an issue.

But reading the law itself is actually rarely going to be a productive use of his time.

The summary can't replace the law. The law has to set out all kinds of details that are of no interest to representatives unless there is something fundamentally wrong with them. (Look at any random five pages of the tax code, for example.)

And, to Ariel: Most people's conceptions of how the average representative (or the President, for that matter) spends his day and runs his office are as wildly inaccurate as their conceptions of how the average CEO runs his company. I think you'll find that they're not all that different. (Even down to the variations in types from 'hands on everything genius' to 'delegate everything and play golf idiot' and everything in-between.)
9.24.2009 4:26am
wyswyg:

I think we're overlooking something. The problem is not so much that a legislator does, or does not, read all of the bill himself. The problem is that the bills are being passed before ANYONE can review them in their entirety.




Yes, that is the problem. We are allegedly a representative republic, where the actions of the legislature reflect in some sense the will of the people. Yet legislation is passed on a regular basis when only twenty people in the whole country, peraps two of them elected members of Congress, know what it says. We have the outward trappings of a democratic republic, but not its substance.

I'd pass on the requirement that Congressmen must read the bills, if we had a requirement that bills be posted online for us to examine for several days prior to a vote.
9.24.2009 5:30am
wyswyg:

Reading this thread I realize that few people actually understand how and by who legislation is literally written.




I understand how and by who it is supposed to be written, and I see no good reason why we don't require that to be the reality instead or allowing lobbyists to write the laws and tell our Congressman "Vote Yea on this one".
9.24.2009 5:40am
Michael Zuhowski (mail):
I propose that we simply substitue another profession into the arguement.

Do you accept that your doctor doesn't actually read the medical literature and instead relies on the advice of 'experts'?

Would you drive over a bridge that the engineer said "it's OK- my designers looked at it for me"

Why should it be acceptable that politicians are free, expected even, to practice negligently?
9.24.2009 7:05am
rosignol (mail):
If they're going to hit us with "Ignorance of the law is no excuse", it seems entirely reasonable for us to demand that our legislators write the law in a manner comprehensible to those without a law degree.

Of course, it seems that our legislators aren't actually writing the law these days- that's done by staffers and lobbyists. They don't appear to be reading it, either.

So exactly what do our legislators actually do other than fundraising and ladling out patronage?
9.24.2009 8:23am
David Schwartz (mail):
Michael Zuhowski: Reasonable reliance is always acceptable.

Something more akin to your example would be this: Would you rather an expert on bridge safety attest that the bridge is safe? Or would you rather the manager who lead the project made the attestation?

A good manager would ensure the attestations where made by those competent to make them, and then and only then would personally attest. His personal attestation would necessarily be based on the opinions of those experts. He simply can't be an expert in everything.

Much worse to have the guy look over designs himself that he barely understands and then conclude the bridge is safe.
9.24.2009 9:02am
Ariel:
David Schwartz,

I don't doubt that you're right. My initial post was not really to argue that CEOs are more detail oriented than legislators, just to correct some of the misconceptions about CEOs not reading anything their business does. I'd expect, and hope, that Senators would do likewise.

I wasn't really trying to argue for or against reading the bill, or about whether or not it happens or constructively happens through underlings. I was just focusing on an incorrect argument.
9.24.2009 9:12am
PaddyL (mail):
For years now I favored laws that required every legislator not only to read, but certify under penalty of perjury, that he/she has read each bill and understands it is purposes and consequences. Then, when there is a violation or if serious mistakes or unintended consequences occur, they can be prosecuted for perjury and removed from office.

The Washington State Constitution has a useful provision that limits ever bill passed by legislature to s single subject. One of the benefits is that 1400 page bills would inevitably be unconstitutional.
9.24.2009 5:54pm
Deoxy (mail):

Shouldn't they first have to read and memorize the entire US Code and Federal Register so that when they read a bill they understand exactly what it is changing and all of the possible cross impacts?

And there is the fact that even if they've read the entire bill in question most of them are not personally expert enough in the subject area to be able to make realistic evaluations of the effectiveness of what it strives to do (or even if it really attempts to do what it ostensibly claims).


And yet, at the end of the day, EVERY BLOODY CITIZEN is apparently supposed to do that, as "Ignorance of the law is no excuse"!

The point of all of this is that any law that is not corrupt must be FOLLOWABLE by its subjects. To be followable, a law must be KNOWABLE. You make this great case that Congressman, whose very job it is to MAKE the law, can't be burdened to know the law they are making, but what of the other 99.9995% of the population who have other jobs to fill their time, but are still bound to follow said law?

What the ever-loving #$%^&* are we paying them to do? What's their job? Clearly, you think it is doing things besides making good, non-corrupt law.
9.24.2009 6:09pm
Fat Man (mail):
proposal would bring government to a standstill


Not a bug. A feature.

if a partner puts his name on a document, does that mean he's read it?


Yes, and he can be penalized by the court. See generally FRCP Rule 11.
9.25.2009 10:16pm

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