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Questions for Those Who Want Legislators to Pledge To Read Every Word of Every Bill Before Voting:
As a follow up to David Post's post below, I have some practical questions for those who think that legislators should "never vote on any bill unless they have read every word of it."

1. Would you also require the legislator to understand the bill? Or is mere reading, with no comprehension, enough? And if comprehension is required, how much comprehension is required, and how would you test that?

2. Imagine a particular bill is a long list of amendments to prior sections of the U.S. Code — perhaps hundreds of pages of amendments such as, "Insert 'and affects' after 'channels' in 5 U.S.C. 1040(a)(7)(C)." Would you also require the legislator to read the law that is being amended?

3. Imagine that a legislator has promised to vote against legislation of that general type — for example, he has promised to vote against all tax increases, and the bill includes a tax increase. Does he still have to read every word of the bill even though he has promised to vote against it?

4. Imagine a bill is up for a vote, and the bill is overwhelmingly popular: No one opposes it. It is also hundreds of pages long. Should the legislator have to read every word anyway? Or is there some threshold of controversy or importance that needs to be crossed before the reading requirement is triggered?

5. Does the reading requirement apply to procedural votes, like cloture, or is it only on the passage of the legislation itself?

UPDATE: Here's a bonus question:
6. Imagine Congress wants to dramatically limit the role of the federal government in American life, and there are bills up for a vote that do just that. The bills are very long, however, as they need to amend many laws, remove old parts, and introduce new parts that dramatically cut back on the size and scope of the federal bureaucracy. Do legislators need to read every word of those bills, too?
Anon21:
It's amazing how a few well-chosen questions can reduce a policy based on nothing more than simplistic slogans to its logical essentials (such as they are and what there are of them).
9.23.2009 4:44pm
Melancton Smith:
I think they just can't say: oops, I didn't know that was in the bill when I voted for it. Or signed it in the main guy's case.
9.23.2009 4:46pm
Steven Lubet (mail):
Should a law professor have to read all of a candidate's written work before voting on an appointment?
9.23.2009 4:47pm
ShelbyC:

Imagine a bill is up for a vote, and the bill is overwhelmingly popular: No one opposes it. It is also hundreds of pages long. Should the legislator have to read every word anyway?


Maybe if somebody read it they might oppose it.

I'd be willing to bet that the folks who want the legislators to read every bill are the same as the folks who think big, log, specialized, complicated bills are bad.
9.23.2009 4:47pm
rj (mail):
We like to think of Members of Congress as individuals, but they are really bosses of offices with a full compliment of staffers. They are also members of committees, each with its own staff. Just as Vikram Pandit doesn't read the fine print on your credit card statement, there's just too much output from Congress for one person to read, so they delegate.

If you think Congress should be legislating less, say so. There are certainly good reasons to believe there should be less legislation or that it should be easier to understand, but there's no need to couch this in the language of feigned ignorance about how institutions work.
9.23.2009 4:47pm
rj (mail):
Note on my previous post: the "feigned ignorance" bit goes to the promoters of this petition, not Orin.
9.23.2009 4:49pm
Nick B (mail):
I'd say only Yes votes require reading the bill, though I can see arguments either way.
1. comprehension would be nice, but hard to implement
2. again, it would be nice, but hard to implement
3. see above
4. I would say that makes it all the more important that every legislator read it
5. I would say it applies to everything

The whole goal of "read the damn bill" is to slow things down, and make folks at least pretend to think about it. It would hopefully reduce the "Unintended Consequences!" whines I constantly hear, but that would be pure gravy.
Nick
9.23.2009 4:49pm
AJK:


1. Would you also require the legislator to understand the bill? Or is mere reading, with no comprehension, enough? And if comprehension is required, how much comprehension is required, and how would you test that?


Yes, I would think the legislator is obliged to understand what he has read. Obviously there's no good way to hold him to that obligation, other than keeping an eye on him and voting against him if it looks like he's not living up to his obligation.


2. Imagine a particular bill is a long list of amendments to prior sections of the U.S. Code — perhaps hundreds of pages of amendments such as, "Insert 'and affects' after 'channels' in 5 U.S.C. 1040(a)(7)(C)." Would you also require the legislator to read the law that is being amended?


I would like the legislator to understand the effect of each of those amendments, yes.


3. Imagine that a legislator has promised to vote against legislation of that general type — for example, he has promised to vote against all tax increases, and the bill includes a tax increase. Does he still have to read every word of the bill even though he has promised to vote against it?



If he has an incontrovertible objection to a specific provision, I don't think there's a need to read further.


4. Imagine a bill is up for a vote, and the bill is overwhelmingly popular: No one opposes it. It is also hundreds of pages long. Should the legislator have to read every word anyway? Or is there some threshold of controversy or importance that needs to be crossed before the reading requirement is triggered?




I don't think it matters how popular it is. If you're going to vote for it, you need to read it first.



5. Does the reading requirement apply to procedural votes, like cloture, or is it only on the passage of the legislation itself?


I think that the bill should be read before any discussion begins.
9.23.2009 4:50pm
Nick B (mail):
re: RJ
Ahh yes, and we *never* hear senators whine about "unintended consequences" that were blatantly obvious if you even skimmed the bill in question. And of course every senator fully supports the graft porkbarrel spending that goes on.
So wait, are you arguing that they're all guilty of bribery, as there is unquestionably bribery going on through various bills, and if they're all competent and well informed, as you claim, they'd all be guilty, right?
Nick
9.23.2009 4:53pm
LessinSF (mail):
Should an appellate judge read the entire record of every case on which s/he sits? Or can they rely on their clerk?
9.23.2009 4:54pm
CliveStaples (mail):
Um, isn't this what they get paid to do? Isn't this like asking whether judges should be required to read and understand motions before ruling on them?
9.23.2009 4:54pm
24AheadDotCom (mail) (www):
They should be required to hire expert staffers and then they should be required to read those staffers' summaries of important points.

Which is what I'm going to guess they already do.

The "did you read the bill? Did ya?" is just some dumb gotcha stunt dreamed up by GOP incompetents. You can see it in action on this video from the GOP. Of course, they'd never think of asking questions like these.
9.23.2009 4:56pm
Fenster McManus (mail):
AJK -

How would you have expected an average Joe House Member to vote for ERISA? How about the TRA of '86? These people are elected officials, many of whom - I suspect strongly - are quite literally incapable of understanding something like Section 404 of the Code.

Lawmakers, like businessmen, must be able to rely on the opinions of experts. The CEO may have only a glib understanding of a policy he approves - but he trusts the accountants, lawyers and actuaries to get it right.
9.23.2009 4:56pm
Preferred Customer:

Um, isn't this what they get paid to do?


Not to be snarky, but since legislators generally do not do this, the answer is no, this is not what they get paid to do. This may be what you would like them to get paid to do, but it would be a radical rewrite of the job description.

As many others have said, legislators are the managers of a team (or many teams) of staff. It is no more sensible to require a legislator to read each bill in its entirety than it is to require Alan Mulally to personally inspect the wiring diagrams of each Ford design before it's approved for production. It's enough for the legislator to say to his staff: "I want to do X, and do not want to do Y," and allow his staff to worry about the implementation details. Frankly, they are undoubtedly better at it than the legislator is.
9.23.2009 5:01pm
rj (mail):
Nick B says:
Ahh yes, and we *never* hear senators whine about "unintended consequences" that were blatantly obvious if you even skimmed the bill in question. And of course every senator fully supports the graft porkbarrel spending that goes on.

So wait, are you arguing that they're all guilty of bribery, as there is unquestionably bribery going on through various bills, and if they're all competent and well informed, as you claim, they'd all be guilty, right?


My big question about your statement is this: what makes you think that a member of congress would be able to catch all the "unintended consequences" (the definition of which differs wildly) and spending you don't like. Aside from the constitutional requirements, you don't have to know a lick about policy, economics or anything else.

As for bribery, I don't get your point. Are you arguing that members of congress are bribing their constituents through pork? One man's pork is another man's constituent service - a blanket accusation of bribery because of public votes on measures you don't like is more than a little disingenuous, no?
9.23.2009 5:02pm
extractor:
I'm not a proponent of this idea, but I'll take the bait.

1. Would you also require the legislator to understand the bill? Or is mere reading, with no comprehension, enough? And if comprehension is required, how much comprehension is required, and how would you test that?

That's obviously the intent, but since there is no practical way to achieve it, proponents had to go with a lower threshold of reading.

4. Imagine a bill is up for a vote, and the bill is overwhelmingly popular: No one opposes it. It is also hundreds of pages long. Should the legislator have to read every word anyway? Or is there some threshold of controversy or importance that needs to be crossed before the reading requirement is triggered?

And that's exactly how corruption works today: somebody slips a paid-for provision into a bill that is extremely popular. It goes unnoticed because nobody reads the bill. God forbid we clamp down on this practice!
9.23.2009 5:02pm
guy in a veal calf office (mail) (www):
1. (a) Yes; (b) Multiple choice test created by the CRS.
2. Yes, why shouldn't they read the law they are amending? what kind of question is that?
3. No, only legislators who are voting to add a law need to understand fully what they are forcing on everyone else.
4. Yes, that is their job.
5. Only the passage of laws.

That was easy.
9.23.2009 5:04pm
The Cabbage (mail):
Legislators should be required to read all the reasons I think they suck.
9.23.2009 5:05pm
MCMC:
I'll just reiterate what I've said before.

I think that we shouldn't make any enforceable requirement for legislators to read bills. However it should be understood and publicly recognized as a relevant and legitimate issue when people vote or choose to support certain legislative incumbents and challengers.
9.23.2009 5:05pm
CliveStaples (mail):

Not to be snarky, but since legislators generally do not do this, the answer is no, this is not what they get paid to do. This may be what you would like them to get paid to do, but it would be a radical rewrite of the job description.

As many others have said, legislators are the managers of a team (or many teams) of staff. It is no more sensible to require a legislator to read each bill in its entirety than it is to require Alan Mulally to personally inspect the wiring diagrams of each Ford design before it's approved for production. It's enough for the legislator to say to his staff: "I want to do X, and do not want to do Y," and allow his staff to worry about the implementation details. Frankly, they are undoubtedly better at it than the legislator is.


Laws are proposals. The people deciding whether to adopt the proposal should be familiar with what the proposal actually entails. Informed decisions are preferable to uninformed decisions, yes?

Your analogy is overwrought, I think. The bill is right there in front of them; what else are they doing with their time, other than considering legislation?

These people are professional legislators. Shouldn't the head of a team of defense lawyers be familiar with the arguments that his team will present?
9.23.2009 5:06pm
yankee (mail):
3. No, only legislators who are voting to add a law need to understand fully what they are forcing on everyone else.

Should they then also be required to understand fully the status quo they are voting to uphold? For example, should a legislator who intends to vote against a bill that would alter the tax code be required to read the entire existing tax code?
9.23.2009 5:07pm
guy in a veal calf office (mail) (www):
Post was right, the best thing about such a bill would be shorter &fewer new laws. The absence of such a bill is a replay of the tragedy of the commons.
9.23.2009 5:07pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):

As I said in my comments below, I’m agnostic on requiring legislators to personally read each bill before they vote on it, but some of your questions intrigued me.

1. Would you also require the legislator to understand the bill? Or is mere reading, with no comprehension, enough? And if comprehension is required, how much comprehension is required, and how would you test that?


I think for now, being questioned by your constituents at town hall meetings and being subject to public scrutiny for being unable to answer questions about important provisions in the legislation is its own “test” on the legislator’s comprehension of the contents.

2. Imagine a particular bill is a long list of amendments to prior sections of the U.S. Code — perhaps hundreds of pages of amendments such as, "Insert 'and affects' after 'channels' in 5 U.S.C. 1040(a)(7)(C)." Would you also require the legislator to read the law that is being amended?


I would require that any bill which changes any other part of the US Code also include that text as part of the bill the same way my State does. The bill should include the rewritten passages of the section being altered including strikethroughs showing what language has been removed.

3. Imagine that a legislator has promised to vote against legislation of that general type — for example, he has promised to vote against all tax increases, and the bill includes a tax increase. Does he still have to read every word of the bill even though he has promised to vote against it?


Of course, chances are there are other provisions in the bill that the legislator would find objectionable as well and learning of those by reading the bill, he might be able to lobby his fellow legislators who haven’t promised to vote against all tax increases to vote against the bill for those other reasons as well.

4. Imagine a bill is up for a vote, and the bill is overwhelmingly popular: No one opposes it. It is also hundreds of pages long. Should the legislator have to read every word anyway? Or is there some threshold of controversy or importance that needs to be crossed before the reading requirement is triggered?


If it’s hundreds of pages long and no one is speaking against it, either of those along IMO makes it suspect enough that I want my legislator to read it to be sure.

5. Does the reading requirement apply to procedural votes, like cloture, or is it only on the passage of the legislation itself?


Only on the passage of the legislation itself, with the provision that any member who hasn’t finished reading it should vote against cloture so they have more time to finish their review.
9.23.2009 5:07pm
Jeff Dege (mail):
I would require that every bill that will become law, and every federal regulation that will have the force of law, be read, in its entirety, be read before a full quorum of each House, twice.

If we're going to have to suffer under these laws, they should at least have to suffer through having them read.

Additionally, I would limit the regular session to July and August. And I'd outlaw air conditioning.

I operate under the premise that we already have far more law than we need, and that anything that would make the process of passing more laws more difficult is to the public good. (Have you noticed how big government didn't happen until after the invention of air conditioning? DC has the most unbearable weather of any place on the east coast, and I'm convinced Jefferson picked the place because he thought that if Congress had to do its work there, they'd not do much.)
9.23.2009 5:15pm
yankee (mail):
I still want to know if the proponents of this rule think a CEO should be required to read every word of every contract they sign on behalf of the company.
9.23.2009 5:15pm
Specast:
I heartily second what I believe is the spirit of Orin's question and the Post's editorial: it is impractical and largely unnecessary for each legislator to read the entire text of everything passed in his/her house of Congress. Technical amendments and non-binding resolutions ("Congratulations to the Riverdale Titans for winning the championship!") are the most obvious examples.

What is important is for each legislator to have a reasonable and particular understanding of the provisions and effect of each bill passed. In doing so, he/she may, depending on the particular bill and issues involved, rely on staff or committee recommendations. Indeed, that's in large measure what those groups are for.

Does he/she need to know that a bill changes a reporting date from October 1 to November 1, or change "he shall" to "the applicant shall"? Of course not -- the legislator may rely on others to explain that the changes are technical.

Some apparently believe that a read-every-bill requirement would improve public policy. I very much doubt that. Instead, the requirement would take away from the time spent crafting legislation and passing it. (If you think they will instead just spend less time kissing babies, cutting ribbons and raising money, you're fooling yourself.)
9.23.2009 5:16pm
rj (mail):
Veal Calf:

Post was right, the best thing about such a bill would be shorter &fewer new laws. The absence of such a bill is a replay of the tragedy of the commons.

Bingo!

This business is only about one thing: making it harder to pass any new, complicated legislation because you don't like new, complicated legislation. If that's the real goal, why not make members of congress walk over hot coals to get to the "vote yes" button for new entitlements while making the "no" button easier to get to? Why not make voting yes on new spending a strength test like at the state fair, with real effort required to hit the top and mark a yes vote?

If you really want smaller government, vote for it and convince others to vote for it. This is pure gimmickry and I think a lot of people who are peddling it know as much.
9.23.2009 5:16pm
John Thacker (mail):
legislators should "never vote on any bill unless they have read every word of it."

1. Would you also require the legislator to understand the bill? Or is mere reading, with no comprehension, enough? And if comprehension is required, how much comprehension is required, and how would you test that?


There's an enormous difference between saying that legislators "should" read a bill, or should "sign a pledge," or, as David Post put it, view it as unacceptable if they don't "actually tr[y] to live up to this most basic obligation," and attempting to make it illegal.

Your post is basically filled with straw men. Actually proving that a legislator has read and/or understood a law is impossible, but do you really disagree that it's an ideal that legislators should try to live up to?

I'd prefer that legislators pledge not to lie; that doesn't mean that I want lengthy judicial procedures where politicians have to defend every utterance's careful parsing.

Would you also require the legislator to read the law that is being amended?


They'd be better off doing it, because the practical effects of an amendment can be much different in context of the surrounding US Code than what it sounds like by itself.
9.23.2009 5:17pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):


1. Would you also require the legislator to understand the bill? Or is mere reading, with no comprehension, enough? And if comprehension is required, how much comprehension is required, and how would you test that?


Well, I don't think it is too much to expect legislators to understand the bill at least in its broad outlines. You can't have debate and dialog over a measure if there is no understanding. However, I have NO problem relying on experts for this element.


2. Imagine a particular bill is a long list of amendments to prior sections of the U.S. Code — perhaps hundreds of pages of amendments such as, "Insert 'and affects' after 'channels' in 5 U.S.C. 1040(a)(7)(C)." Would you also require the legislator to read the law that is being amended?


Well, I would hope that legislators familiarize themselves with the issues before voting and debating. This would involve being familiar with the sections of the code it affects.


3. Imagine that a legislator has promised to vote against legislation of that general type — for example, he has promised to vote against all tax increases, and the bill includes a tax increase. Does he still have to read every word of the bill even though he has promised to vote against it?


Probably not quite. However, it would still be highly recommended to do so since debate and discussion is very much a part of the congressman's job.


4. Imagine a bill is up for a vote, and the bill is overwhelmingly popular: No one opposes it. It is also hundreds of pages long. Should the legislator have to read every word anyway? Or is there some threshold of controversy or importance that needs to be crossed before the reading requirement is triggered?


Call me idealistic but I would hope that congressmen would have the time to follow such bills prior to the time they are up for a vote so that important opinions could be registered ahead of time.


5. Does the reading requirement apply to procedural votes, like cloture, or is it only on the passage of the legislation itself?


I think it is a prerequisite for meaningful dialog. So yes.

Now, I think there should be some exceptions. I don't think every representative should be required to audit every appropriations bill. But I think that they should be familiar with at least general breakdown of money spent in those cases. However for regulatory measures, a smaller amount of better regulation is better than a larger amount of mediocre regulation....
9.23.2009 5:22pm
Parared:
Of *course* they should understand what they are doing. They are *representatives*, how can they purport to be representing us if they do not read and understand what they are voting for.

I also hate it when they call themselves 'lawmakers'. I'd like them to take some time getting rid of some, or conglomerating some, or re-factor a bunch to make them consistent.

Its not right that laws get so complex that no one person can understand them.
9.23.2009 5:22pm
K. Dackson (mail):
[Deleted on civility grounds. Please keep it civil, K. Dackson.]
9.23.2009 5:23pm
martinned (mail) (www):
Those who want to take the "read every word" pledge literally are just abusing the point to argue for fewer and shorter laws. And to make matters worse, they tend to not really understand what it would look like if Congress really did pass fewer and shorter bills.
9.23.2009 5:25pm
OrinKerr:
John Thacker writes:
Your post is basically filled with straw men. Actually proving that a legislator has read and/or understood a law is impossible, but do you really disagree that it's an ideal that legislators should try to live up to?
Now that is a straw man. I like how you replace "read" with "read and/or understand," and then make it an ideal, not, as the op-ed and post say, require a pledge to actually do it.
9.23.2009 5:25pm
OrinKerr:
Oh, and I have added a bonus question for you all in the main post: I'd be interested in your views of it, too.
9.23.2009 5:26pm
...---...:
No laws longer than 140 characters.
9.23.2009 5:26pm
CJColucci:
While the questions are sensible enough, the very fact of posting them gives the proposal more credibility than it deserves.
9.23.2009 5:28pm
Steve:
No one in the "read the bill" contingent has thus far persuaded me that their stance is about anything other than making bills more difficult to pass. That's fine, but the presentation is disingenuous.
9.23.2009 5:28pm
CEpperson:
1. Would you also require the legislator to understand the bill? Or is mere reading, with no comprehension, enough? And if comprehension is required, how much comprehension is required, and how would you test that?

I would hope that if they read it they might come to understand what they are voting for and if they do not understand, to abstain from voting on it.

2. Imagine a particular bill is a long list of amendments to prior sections of the U.S. Code — perhaps hundreds of pages of amendments such as, "Insert 'and affects' after 'channels' in 5 U.S.C. 1040(a)(7)(C)." Would you also require the legislator to read the law that is being amended?

They should know what they are voting for so yes they should read what is being amended.

3. Imagine that a legislator has promised to vote against legislation of that general type — for example, he has promised to vote against all tax increases, and the bill includes a tax increase. Does he still have to read every word of the bill even though he has promised to vote against it?

Instead of voting against it I would hope they first try to purge the offending part of the bill in their own amendment. Then they could vote for it. But if they did not read the bill they cannot know if there are salvageable portions to it.

4. Imagine a bill is up for a vote, and the bill is overwhelmingly popular: No one opposes it. It is also hundreds of pages long. Should the legislator have to read every word anyway? Or is there some threshold of controversy or importance that needs to be crossed before the reading requirement is triggered?

Of course popularity is no judge of worth. Many popular ideas are horrible. yes they should read it.

5. Does the reading requirement apply to procedural votes, like cloture, or is it only on the passage of the legislation itself?

I do not think strictly procedural votes would require reading the underlying bill in question but I would hope they had already read a bill if it being debated.


I want to add one thing further. How can one debate a bill if they have not read it. having a staff does not excuse one from their duty to read a bill. I also think that no bill should be able to be moved as having been read and the clerks should have to read the bill into the record. These procedural moves are to speed up legislation and it needs to slow down greatly.
9.23.2009 5:29pm
Some dude:
No, you don't have to read it to vote "no." One might vote "no" because it is too long to read.

How old is this country? How long does it take to fine-tune the government? After all this time, you would think they might have the federal government pretty much set up. Congress should be considering maybe one bill a year.
9.23.2009 5:29pm
Gabriel McCall (mail):
I'm fine with the congressman voting based on a summary of the law, as long as I'm only going to be required to comply with the language of the summary.
9.23.2009 5:30pm
CEpperson:
Added the Bonus Question.

Yes they should read it to make sure they are changing or removing the correct things.
9.23.2009 5:31pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
I want the legislators to either read every word (and yes, the parts of existing law necessary to comprehend what the law actually does, OR

I want a one month required delay between the conference committee reports and final passage of the legislation. Of course the bills are incomprehensible (not an argument in their favor), given the preposterous level of detail contained in far too many federal statutes. It does indeed take experts to understand the bizarre-ness which is current federal legislative language.

Which is why waiting periods (even longer than the 72 hours the Democrats just rejected) are essential. The public should not have to take the word of Congressmen (who themselves are relying on their own staff) as to what the bill does. We should have a right to see it, and there should be TIME for experts from various think tanks, universities, the punditry, etc., to review it, see what it really says, and communicate that to the public, so we can provide real, actual feedback to Congress BEFORE they actually vote on the legislation.

I propose a constitutional amendment to create a third chamber of the legislature, whose only power is to establish the rules of procedure for the other two. Make it about 5,000 or 10,000 in number, no offices, no salaries, they meet once every 6 months for 2 days, if needed. Then that body could impose requirements that neither chamber (regardless of party in charge) is currently prepared to impose upon itself.
9.23.2009 5:32pm
...---...:
@Gabriel McCall

We are a nation of Cliff Notes, not men.
9.23.2009 5:32pm
Cato The Elder (mail) (www):

6. Imagine Congress wants to dramatically limit the role of the federal government in American life, and there are bills up for a vote that do just that. The bills are very long, however, as they need to amend many laws, remove old parts, and introduce new parts that dramatically cut back on the size and scope of the federal bureaucracy. Do legislators need to read every word of those bills, too?

Of course they do. This is analagous to the series of disastrous privatizations of the old Communist state agencies that proceeded under Yeltsin, spawning a new generation of ostensibly capitalist plutocrats, and thus tarring the original noble aim of the enterprise in the eyes of the population. These too, were carried out in shadowy bureaucracies replete with men possessing democratically illegitimate power. Anytime we try to good we should always take care to understand the unintended consequences.
9.23.2009 5:37pm
Mac (mail):
Maybe Congress should only bring bills to the floor that are short, to the point, easily comprehensible and not so long and complicated that they can be neither read nor understood. Seems this would eliminate the problem of not reading or comprehending the bills.

Of course, there appear to be some in Congress who may not be able to read or comprehend the bills no matter how short or simple. But, surely this would help the majority and help all of us who must live under the laws that are passed.

I mean, really, how are we supposed to live under and abide by laws Congress can neither read nor comprehend?
9.23.2009 5:38pm
Dan Weber (www):
I still want to know if the proponents of this rule think a CEO should be required to read every word of every contract they sign on behalf of the company.


If the CEO flubs up and signs something that's bad for his company, that's among him and his board and his shareholders.

If Congress passes something accidentally, we're the ones on the hook.

I don't think "Read the full bill" is necessarily the right thing to do, but complaints about it being too hard for the Congressmen to do don't sit well with me. Not when Senator Dodd denies knowledge of parts of a bill that his own office put in there. Who is responsible for knowing what's in it?
9.23.2009 5:38pm
Bill Sommerfeld (www):
Viking-era Iceland had a requirement that the speaker of the parliament recite, from memory, one third of the legal code each year. If he left anything out, it was no longer part of the law and would need to be voted back in.

I think it would be good for all of us for the law to be simplified and refactored such that this sort of thing would be possible again.
9.23.2009 5:39pm
martinned (mail) (www):
Maybe Congress should only bring bills to the floor that are short, to the point, easily comprehensible and not so long and complicated that they can be neither read nor understood.

Translation:


Obama's soooo great! We should let him run the country on his own!
9.23.2009 5:40pm
martinned (mail) (www):

If Congress passes something accidentally, we're the ones on the hook.

Isn't that what elections are for? Why would voters put up with politicians who use the "Oops..." defence?
9.23.2009 5:41pm
Plastic:
I don't think even reading the bill is enough! Instead, I propose that any "yes" vote for a bill must be submitted with a full handwritten copy of the entire bill, done by the legislator them self in pen. The copy is then compared letter by letter against the primary copy, and any mistake converts it into a "no" vote.

At least it would stop 1000+ page omnibus bills...
9.23.2009 5:43pm
yankee (mail):
If the CEO flubs up and signs something that's bad for his company, that's among him and his board and his shareholders.

So, as a shareholder, should I be outraged if the CEO is signing contracts without reading them in full? As a director, should I vote to remove the CEO if they're signing contracts without reading them in full? As a CEO, am I breaching my fiduciary duties to my shareholders if I sign contracts without reading them in full?
9.23.2009 5:45pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):

6. Imagine Congress wants to dramatically limit the role of the federal government in American life, and there are bills up for a vote that do just that. The bills are very long, however, as they need to amend many laws, remove old parts, and introduce new parts that dramatically cut back on the size and scope of the federal bureaucracy. Do legislators need to read every word of those bills, too?


Yes. The goal should be quality of quantity. This means understanding, dialog, and debate. And it doesn't matter whose ox is gored.
9.23.2009 5:47pm
Snaphappy:
I would support a rule that Congress may not pass bills that contain unintelligible revisions like

"Insert between 'and' and 'the' in the second sentence of subection (a)(2)(B)(ii) of Section 246 of Title 7 the words 'unless otherwise referred to in subsection (b)(3)(A)(iv)(1) or section 101.24 of tile 16'".

At a minimum, bills should reproduce the section they seek to revise with indications of what is changed; e.g., strikeout for the portions stricken and underline for things added. That doesn't address the cross reference problem, but it's a start.
9.23.2009 5:49pm
_quodlibet_:
Perhaps bills should have binding summaries, so that legislators can be sure that nothing irrelevant got snuck into the bill. That is, a long bill would have a short summary, and the rest of the bill may elaborate upon the summary, but not introduce anything extraneous like pork spending.
9.23.2009 5:53pm
Bill Sommerfeld (www):
Perhaps we need a limit on the total size of the US code.
(in pages, words, characters, or what have you).

Legislators would thus have to spend time debating what to delete before they could add anything.
9.23.2009 5:55pm
Alexia:
I am hard core small government. I wouldn't allow any bill to be longer than the Consitution.
9.23.2009 5:58pm
Bill Sommerfeld (www):

I would support a rule that Congress may not pass bills that contain unintelligible revisions like

"Insert between 'and' and 'the' in the second sentence of subection (a)(2)(B)(ii) of Section 246 of Title 7 the words 'unless otherwise referred to in subsection (b)(3)(A)(iv)(1) or section 101.24 of tile 16'".

At a minimum, bills should reproduce the section they seek to revise with indications of what is changed; e.g., strikeout for the portions stricken and underline for things added. That doesn't address the cross reference problem, but it's a start.

Open source software development has resulted in the development of many tools for presenting changes, in context, for review by others. Such tools could likely be adapted for the purpose of reviewing changes to legislation, and could make it possible for anyone familiar with the tool to see exactly what snuck in while the bill was in conference...
9.23.2009 5:58pm
rj (mail):
Alexia:

I am hard core small government. I wouldn't allow any bill to be longer than the Consitution.

Don't you think that it's a little undemocratic to put limits on legislators to reach your desired political ends? Don't you think that sort of policy-by-way-of-procedure could be used against limited government?
9.23.2009 6:01pm
Leo Marvin (mail):
It's a stretch just to read all the comments on these threads.
9.23.2009 6:02pm
second history:
This whole "read every word of every bill before voting" meme is pretty silly. We live in a complex society, and problems don't have simple solutions, whether at the local, state, or federal level. For the reasons noted in this post as well as previously, the shorter (and less specific) the bill, the more power it gives its interpreters. Legislators may come and go, but the courts and bureaucracy are forever.

The target audience for this campaign isn't Congress, its the Glenn Beck, pitchfork and torch, birther, Freeper, tea partier crowd. This crowd thrives on slogans and simplistic solutions. And the campaign isn't grass roots, its driven by corporate marketers:


The advertising, design, and digital Agency for a Social World, New York City­based DIGO (short for DiMassimo Goldstein) was founded by Mark DiMassimo in 1996. Prior to that, DiMassimo created pioneering digital and interactive programs for blue chip clients, led creative on some of the most successful launches of all time, including those for the AT&T Universal Card and the Citibank AAdvantage Card, and rose to the top of the direct marketing world. . . .
,,,

Ericho Communications is a full-service public relations firm where green meets the latest that technology has to offer. The firm¹s successes range from the recent launch of the first-ever video text messaging company to a new peer-to-peer video-sharing college search site to Tappening to work with Tibet. Yaverbaum is the former president of Jericho Communications, where he managed a who¹s who of brand names for 21 years, including IKEA Home Furnishings, Domino¹s Pizza, Subway Sandwiches and Salads, Progressive Insurance, TCBY, Sony, H&M, Bell Atlantic, American Express, and many more.
9.23.2009 6:05pm
K. Dackson (mail):
You people are missing the point.

Simplicity is what these people don't want you to have. The confusion and obscure references to some other obscure sub paragraph in some obscure law gives these shysters the cover they need to calim they did not know what they were voting on when, in reality, they knew all the time.

The simpler the law, the more transparent its intent is. By making these long convoluted bills, they can get away with all manner of things to pay off the people they want to pay off by allowing the recipients to draft the lesislation.

If you cannot see it for the corruption that it is, then you have no business claiming moral or ethical superiority.
9.23.2009 6:16pm
Haakon:
I would say that a good faith reading would be sufficient, but since legislators have no problem imposing burdensome requirements on corporations in their Sarbanes-Oxley financial filings then screw 'em! Make them certify comprehension of every tittle
9.23.2009 6:16pm
one of many:
1) I'd like to but considering the observed comprehension skills and attention spans of legislators I think that is an unrealistic requirement. Perhaps 10-20 years after a reading requirement we can institute a comprehension requirement but let's not push for too much too soon.

2) See answer to number 1, at this point I would happy if they just read the bill.

3)Not me, I am perfectly happy with a legislator voting against all bills if they do not wish to read the bills. If Congress does nothing it will be no worse than the status quo as far as things which congress can mess up. If they vote for a bill I would require them to read it, and perhaps someday in the far, far future it might be possible to require them to understand it, but that's just wistful dreaming at this time.

4)No, all bills should be read regardless of popularity. I'm not sure what the point of this question is, merely because something is popular does not mean it is wise. Didn't anyone every ask you "If everyone else is jumping off a bridge would you do it?"?

5) just legislation, although I have no objection if it applied to procedural votes there is no need for it. Procedural votes do not themselves, although they can have an impact, do not change the laws that they citizens are required to live under. I'm even open to allowing legislation which does not create a rule or law, empower the government to take any action pr allocate any money to be voted for without reading (so congresscritters can pass symbolic declarations), although I will not support the idea I will not oppose it.


**6) Absolutely. Like all legislation, if it is too long and complicated to be read it shouldn't pass.


The whole point of requiring reading is the same as the Hippocratic 'do no harm' principal. At least the status quo hasn't resulted in the total destruction of the country and inaction is better than acting blindly.
9.23.2009 6:17pm
24AheadDotCom (mail) (www):
7. BHO has BarneyFrank sneak in a provision making Youtube the default video provider for the internet and turning over control of the internet to Google. Who do you want to read the bill: Arlen Specter, or his policy specialist?
9.23.2009 6:21pm
Waste (mail):
1. If they can not comprehend the bill maybe they shouldn't vote on it. Consider the wording many laws that may be the best outcome. We have enough uninformed and poorly informed voters already.

2. They should understand the consequences or at least try to prior to voting. The rest of us tend to have to live with their decisions.

3. If they find something they don't like then they can of course vote against it. But they should still try to read the whole thing. Sometimes in a compromise legislation it may do more good than harm. I'm sure some will laugh at that part. :)

4. Read it.

5. Not necessary on procedural votes. But definately on votes on passing legislation.
9.23.2009 6:21pm
Leo Marvin (mail):
Cato The Elder:

Of course they do.

I commend your consistency (sincerely -- no snark intended).

Anytime we try to good we should always take care to understand the unintended consequences.

I agree, but how does that not argue for delegating much of the review and analysis to people more competent to do so than the politicians?


+++++++++++++++++

Dan Weber:

If the CEO flubs up and signs something that's bad for his company, that's among him and his board and his shareholders.

In other words, he's accountable to his bosses for his mistake.

If Congress passes something accidentally, we're the ones on the hook.

And Congress is accountable to the voters for its mistakes.

Not when Senator Dodd denies knowledge of parts of a bill that his own office put in there.

I'm not familiar with the example, but if it was an explanation, fine. If it was an attempted excuse, I agree it doesn't fly.

Who is responsible for knowing what's in it?

Every boss is responsible to his own bosses for everything he delegates.
9.23.2009 6:22pm
ShelbyC:
Another question: If congresscritters aren't reading the bills, are they actually voting on them? They're really just delegating lawmaking authority to their staff and others, correct? So if that's really the system we want, maybe we can come up with a more efficient system that reflects that reality.
9.23.2009 6:24pm
Monty:
Would you also require the legislator to understand the bill?

Laws should be written in a way that a person of average intelligence can understand them. Jokes about legislators aside, if a legislator reading the bill cannot understand it, what hope does the average citizen have?

Obviously there would be exceptions when a law would only apply to professionals of a specific field; In which case the should be understandable to an average such professional, and it would be reasonable to allow a legislator to rely on a summary from one... but laws of general application should require no special training to understand.
9.23.2009 6:25pm
Bill Harshaw (mail) (www):
Random thoughts:
I'd agree with Bill Summerfeld and Snaphappy--we really need some good systems people to redo the way legislation is drafted and promulgated. Unfortunately that would disrupt the cartel lawyers use to maintain their power, so it will never happen.
No one has mentioned things like the "chairman's mark" or the committee report, both of which are more user-friendly. It'd make more sense (but not much) to require legislators to read them, but then you get the problem of discrepancies in meaning.
Someone mentioned restricting laws to the length of the Constitution. I'm not sure the Constitution is an example of policy which everyone understands, at least not in the same way.
Legislator is only one of the many roles congresspeople fill. Constituent ombudsman, executive oversight, developed of legislation, politician, and most of all, getting reelected.
Question 7:
Would you require the legislator to read every line of each appropriation bill, and understand their meaning?
9.23.2009 6:27pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Second History:

I certainly don't consider myself to be in the Glen Beck crowd. However, let's look at your statement here carefully:

This whole "read every word of every bill before voting" meme is pretty silly. We live in a complex society, and problems don't have simple solutions, whether at the local, state, or federal level. For the reasons noted in this post as well as previously, the shorter (and less specific) the bill, the more power it gives its interpreters. Legislators may come and go, but the courts and bureaucracy are forever.


I think the ideal length of a bill is 1-30 pages. If you have a bill of more than 30 pages, chances are it is trying to tackle more than one problem at a time. This interferes with debate and discussion and makes it harder to ensure the passage of quality legislation.

I am not saying this would reduce the size of the US Code (it wouldn't), nor would it result in a less intrusive government by itself, but it would slow down the rate of change and allow legislators to focus on ensuring that every piece of legislation passed was of good quality rather than ensuring that one has large, opaque, partisan bills which will surely contain unpleasant surprises.

Lawmaking, in an ideal republic, should be careful and deliberate. This is not what we have in this country. Passage of acts like the USAPATRIOT act has been fundamentally reckless. I expect the health care reform legislation to be the same way.

Note that I find it really funny that Michael Moore was pushing this idea first. Now it's Glen Beck. Either this is one of the rare issues that Moore and Beck agree on because they are both out to lunch or because it is so obvious that even they can see it.
9.23.2009 6:27pm
eyesay:
Well, I read David Post's entry, and every comment on it, and Orin Kerr's entry, and every comment on it, before beginning my own comment. I wonder how many other people who've commented here can make the same claim.

I agree completely with Professor Kerr. I suspect that many of the "Read Every Word" crowd don't grasp that a significant number of bills are necessarily extremely detailed. Congress is supposed to (and generally does) pass twelve appropriations bills each year. This is where Congress tells the Executive Branch how much to spend on things. These bills have to include a lot of details. Then there are tax bills. Some things that a business owner thinks of as an expense are treated by tax law as expenses that charge off against income in the year they are incurred. Other expense-like spending has to be depreciated over a certain number of years, depending on what category it falls into. There is no way around the fact that establishing the boundaries of these categories is complex. Income tax law is going to be complex, and no, I don't expect my lawmaker to necessarily read and understand the portion of the tax bill that affects how to depreciate a part that attaches one compressor component to another, inside an air conditioner that was installed pursuant to an incentive program to replace inefficient air conditioners with high-efficiency air conditioners. There are other categories of bills that simply can't be reduced to a few pages. This is why legislators and committees have staffs.

I also object on principle to legislators who make silly pledges such as to vote against all tax increases. A legislator making such a silly pledge is then unable to vote to decrease highly-objectionable Tax A and pay for it by increasing less-objectionable Tax B.

Professor Kerr, thank you for injecting a little adult realism in this childish debate.
9.23.2009 6:28pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Bill Harshaw:

Would you require the legislator to read every line of each appropriation bill, and understand their meaning?


See my answer above. Answer is no, but I would expect they would have a basic understanding of the breakdown of spending and be willing to audit further areas as they felt necessary.
9.23.2009 6:29pm
usual suspect:
There is big difference between lawmakers and CEOs of private companies. Mistakes of lawmakers could lead to felony charges and convictions for harmless activities against people. Mistakes of a CEO affect only limited financial interests of people who willfully make a decision to have a financial interest in the company
9.23.2009 6:32pm
conlaw2 (mail):
You asked the Questions, here are some answers.


1. Would you also require the legislator to understand the bill? Or is mere reading, with no comprehension, enough? And if comprehension is required, how much comprehension is required, and how would you test that? No Congressman has to understand any part of any bill they vote on.

2. Imagine a particular bill is a long list of amendments to prior sections of the U.S. Code — perhaps hundreds of pages of amendments such as, "Insert 'and affects' after 'channels' in 5 U.S.C. 1040(a)(7)(C)." Would you also require the legislator to read the law that is being amended? No Congressman has to read any part of any law that is amended.

3. Imagine that a legislator has promised to vote against legislation of that general type — for example, he has promised to vote against all tax increases, and the bill includes a tax increase. Does he still have to read every word of the bill even though he has promised to vote against it? No Congressman has to read anything if he just doesn't like the general idea.

4. Imagine a bill is up for a vote, and the bill is overwhelmingly popular: No one opposes it. It is also hundreds of pages long. Should the legislator have to read every word anyway? Or is there some threshold of controversy or importance that needs to be crossed before the reading requirement is triggered? No congressman has to read the popular bills they just have to vote for them.

5. Does the reading requirement apply to procedural votes, like cloture, or is it only on the passage of the legislation itself? No Congress does not have to know anything about the bill to request cloture

UPDATE: Here's a bonus question:

6. Imagine Congress wants to dramatically limit the role of the federal government in American life, and there are bills up for a vote that do just that. The bills are very long, however, as they need to amend many laws, remove old parts, and introduce new parts that dramatically cut back on the size and scope of the federal bureaucracy. Do legislators need to read every word of those bills, too? No Congress does not have to know the content of large bills

I believe you posted the questions to make an argument. Would you incorporate these answers into your argument for the way things should work?
9.23.2009 6:37pm
CatoReansci (mail):
I strongly believe legislators should read and understand every bill they vote on.

As to CEO's reading contracts -- I've been practicing law for almost 30 years, mostly doing deals ranging from millions to billions. In every major deal I've worked on, the CEO, or at least the officer with the 'buck stops here' responsibility for the consequences, has sat down with his counsel when the papers are ready to sign and been walked through the entire document, reading every operative section and asking (often pertinent and pointed) questions about the agreement. Many CEO's I've worked with are sticklers for reading absolutely everything. Their stamina amazes.
9.23.2009 6:37pm
Hank Bowman, MD (mail) (www):
There is no reason that bills have to be so complicated. Want to make life simple? Here's a quick way "Title 26, United States Code is abolished".

Need SOME taxes? OK, now that we have a clean slate, write a bill that these fing morons that get elected can read and understand.
9.23.2009 6:42pm
Anony:
Isn't the argument about staff members and delegation a red herring? I bet most people who believe all congressmen should read the text of the bill before it becomes law would be satisfied if the congressman read executive summaries put together by staffers who had read the entire text.

The real concern, it seems to me, are bills that are passed without a single soul, let alone a single soul in every congressional office, having read the entire text. The energy bill (which Post mentions below) is a perfect example.
9.23.2009 6:45pm
Calderon:
I have to admit I don't get the comparisons between CEOs and Congress members. I assume everyone agrees that the job of a CEO is primarily to manage people beneath her, to make or approve high level decisions, and to set broad corporate policies. No one argues that a CEO should personally call customers, make hamburgers, run the cash register, etc.

By contrast, the argument about whether Congress members should read bills is part of an argument about what Congress people should do. Should they be like CEOs, managing a staff of people who do all the real work of drafting legislation and deciding how the member should vote on it? Or should Congress members be personally involved in knowing what the legislation says and obtaining a first-hand understanding of what it means before voting? You shouldn't obscure that debate by silently assuming Congress members are like CEOs when that's what the argument is about.
9.23.2009 6:46pm
second history:
......I find it really funny that Michael Moore was pushing this idea first. Now it's Glen Beck. Either this is one of the rare issues that Moore and Beck agree on because they are both out to lunch or because it is so obvious that even they can see it.

I believe its the former rather than the latter. If Michael Moore and Glenn Beck agree on an idea, then its probably a stupid idea.
9.23.2009 6:48pm
Cato The Elder (mail) (www):

I agree, but how does that not argue for delegating much of the review and analysis to people more competent to do so than the politicians?

Leo Marvin,

I am not actually sure that I would endorse the general idea that the Congressman must be primarily responsible for undertaking a full reading of the bill. Far more brillant people than politicans don't have enough cognitive throughput to fully understand much of the issues they opine upon without substantive help from their colleagues. Indeed, I think Prof. Kerr raised some good points in his questions, particularly #3: however, to address that point, there seems to me some philosophical difference between the positive action of enacting law and regulation in contrast with allowing the citizenry to assert its unemurated rights by rejecting such. But what I do strenuously agree with is Prof. Post's sentiment that the Congressman must ultimately bear responsibility for the actions of his office. I sense that is the quality lacking in all the private sector counterexamples your fellow liberals have offered; IANAL, but isn't this construction close to what is referred to as the "decision-maker" in legalese?

Basically, I think the body should have a head, so it can be cut off in cases of malfeasance.
9.23.2009 6:49pm
Cato The Elder (mail) (www):
Excuse me, please insert and italicize "[final] responsiblity" above.
9.23.2009 6:51pm
rj (mail):
Second history: They agree on it because they're both demagogues and this is posturing. Some people think it'll cut the tax code, others think it'll cut defense appropriations, still others think it'll cut regulation.

The problem with all this is that the problem is political, not procedural. If you want small government and small bills, put people in office who will give you what you want. Just because you can't always get what you want at the ballot box doesn't mean it's some sort of flaw in the system. That's an awfully paternalistic way to look at voters, dontcha think?
9.23.2009 6:52pm
mossypete (mail):
What would be more useful would be tagging each item in a bill in an easily accessible way with the source legislator - that way we'd know who to hold responsible for the midnight additions.
9.23.2009 6:52pm
Constantin:

6. Imagine Congress wants to dramatically limit the role of the federal government in American life, and there are bills up for a vote that do just that. The bills are very long, however, as they need to amend many laws, remove old parts, and introduce new parts that dramatically cut back on the size and scope of the federal bureaucracy. Do legislators need to read every word of those bills, too?


Is this supposed to be some kind of "gotcha"? Of course they should read it. The sooner the better, by the way.

I'm bemused by the claim that the "read the bills" crowd must be stupid rubes who don't know how laws are made. To the contrary, we know exactly how they're bought made. The more public focus on that--if it takes our representatives being forced to read them out loud, that's fine--the better.
9.23.2009 6:57pm
PC:
No laws longer than 140 characters.

Great, now we'll get laws written in Perl.
9.23.2009 6:57pm
guy in a veal calf office (mail) (www):
eyesay: Your comment was too long so I didn't read it. Therefore, I cannot and will not endorse it.

That is so easy, a congressman could do it.
9.23.2009 6:58pm
Cato The Elder (mail) (www):
Sweet Jesus, make that "enumerated rights" too.
9.23.2009 6:58pm
Cato The Elder (mail) (www):
Yargh! "Sweet Jesu..." is also my usual construction...sorry if anyone took offense, I didn't mean to.
9.23.2009 7:00pm
Joe Schmo:
I am very suprised at the ease with some of the posters use the CEO analogy to release a member of congress from being responsible for the content of legislation on which he or she votes.

Hypo 1
Mr. Smith is the CEO of a national widget provider. A customer enters into a contract with the company for the provision of widgets, but a decimal point is misplaced and instad of being charged $100/widget, the customer is charged $10,000 widget. Who would you blame? The CEO or the vp who signed the contract?

Hypo 2
Mr. Smith is the CEO of a national widget provider. On the balance sheet provided in the company's report, revenue is grossly overstated. Who do you blame? The CEO or the vp who crunched the numbers?

It seems to me a member of congress has far more responsibility for legislation than other routine office matters. If there are unintended consequnces of legislation, or if a member of congress is unaware of pork contained in a bill, I most definitely blame the congressman.

If there is a misplaced comma in a letter on behalf of a constituent, I blame the staff member.
9.23.2009 7:06pm
K. Dackson (mail):
Professer Kerr:

Before you vote (i.e., grade) a paper, do you actually read it? Do you comprehend it? Or do you delegate it to a staff member (i.e., Teaching Assistant)?

I realize that it is a common assumption that they are truly intellectually superior to us mere citizens, but shouldn't even Congresspeople be responsible for their work product?
9.23.2009 7:07pm
alkali (mail):
I have said this before elsewhere, but I think it is important to know that Americans have been writing statutes in substantially the fashion they do now for well over a hundred years, and for good reason, notwithstanding the difficulties in reading legislation in that form.

In the early nineteenth century, you could frequently read through a statute and understand it as a self-contained document. The problem came afterward when you were trying to figure out what law addressed particular subject matter, and you’d see several statutes from several different years that addressed the same subject in different ways with no clue how they were intended to fit together. That was extremely problematic.

Over the course of the nineteeth century states, and eventually Congress, moved toward a code model: the statutes were combined into a single code and then subsequent bills took the form of amendments to the code. That way, there's considerably less doubt as to whether a statute changes existing law and how.

It is often true that bills in that form are difficult to read as stand-alone documents, because you are reading what is in effect a mark-up of a document you may not have in front of you. However, there are reports prepared by staff that typically walk the reader through each section of a bill and describe its function.

(An example of a Senate report on a recent veterans’ health bill is here. You can browse all reports for the current Congress here.)

At present, reports by committee staff are available with respect to several of the various health care proposals. One will probably be prepared in each of the House and the Senate as the various committee bills in each chamber are combined into a single bill for floor vote. There will then be a conference committee to create a combined bill, along with a conference report explaining the combined bill. The Senate and House will then each vote on the conference bill.

In the case of the new health care proposals, which involve substantial new legislation rather than technical amendments to existing statutes, you can figure out a lot of what’s going on pretty quickly by just reading the bill itself. (You could start by reading the table of contents.)

It is reasonable to expect that members of Congress and their staff who are deeply involved in the health care negotiations are conversant in what the various sections of the bills do. In any event, a reasonably intelligent member of Congress or Congressional staffer should be able to read one of the health care proposals in a few hours, given access to coffee and a copy of the U.S. Code.
9.23.2009 7:11pm
Lib (mail):
Great, now we'll get laws written in Perl.
The complex ones will be written in APL.
9.23.2009 7:12pm
Mike& (mail):
I agree with the thrust of Orin's post. It would indeed be a lot of work for Congresspersons to read the laws they vote upon. This would distract from the valuable time Senators and Representatives should be spending shaking hands, meeting with corporate lobbyists, and receiving campaign contributions. After all, isn't being in Congress about getting re-elected, rather than actually understanding the laws you're voting in favor of?

Incidentally, Ken Starr read all of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA). Why shouldn't the same people who voted for BCRA have been able to say the same thing?

Should lawyers like Ken Starr be held to a higher standard than legislators? If so, why?
9.23.2009 7:26pm
K. Dackson (mail):
News Flash!!!

Everybody is held to a higher standard than legislators.
9.23.2009 7:29pm
PC:
The complex ones will be written in APL.

:ouch:

Reading the comments I do wonder, how many commenters have ever had a job that requires you to delegate authority? A legislator is not some super-human individual that can understand the minutiae of every bill that comes up for vote, just like a high level manager doesn't understand every detail of every job his employees do. Delegation of authority is considered to be one of the *benefits* of business structures.

As long as the congresscritter understands the legislation being voted on (thanks to staff), I'm not sure why a full reading of the bill would be needed.
9.23.2009 7:30pm
OrinKerr:
K. Dackson,

If you have read my articles and blog posts, you would know the answer to your question. Please read them: Is it too much to expect that you would read them first before asking?
9.23.2009 7:43pm
Shivering Timbers (mail) (www):
Personally, I would like to see a constitutional amendment requiring that laws and regulations be comprehensible to those expected to follow them.

It won't happen, of course, since it would instantly put millions of lawyers and lobbyists on unemployment.
9.23.2009 7:53pm
ChrisTS (mail):
In response to Orin Kerr:

some threshold of controversy Hmm, I think Ron Dworkin had some ideas about that.

1. Would you also require the legislator to understand the bill? Or is mere reading, with no comprehension, enough? And if comprehension is required, how much comprehension is required, and how would you test that?

Desiring comprehension, I think we should not wait to test [or remove from office] after the fact. Rather, all candidates for Congress should have to pass reasoning, close reading, and quantitative analysis [including statistics]tests.

We could also use some 'content' tests to screen out the incompetents. For example, "Dinsoaurs and humans co-existed at some point in history. True or False?"
9.23.2009 8:01pm
ChrisTS (mail):
Bill Sommerfeld:


Viking-era Iceland had a requirement that the speaker of the parliament recite, from memory, one third of the legal code each year. If he left anything out, it was no longer part of the law and would need to be voted back in.

I think it would be good for all of us for the law to be simplified and refactored such that this sort of thing would be possible again.


Because they had such enviable, civilized social orders and lives?
9.23.2009 8:03pm
ChrisTS (mail):
quodlibet_:
Perhaps bills should have binding summaries, so that legislators can be sure that nothing irrelevant got snuck into the bill. That is, a long bill would have a short summary, and the rest of the bill may elaborate upon the summary, but not introduce anything extraneous like pork spending.

I think this, plus someone else's suggestion about tags for sponsoring leglislators, would be of genuine use.
9.23.2009 8:04pm
ChrisTS (mail):
Open source software development has resulted in the development of many tools for presenting changes, in context, for review by others.

Oh, please no. Not that I have unduly gentle feelings for most of our congressmembers, but surely track changes is cruel and unusual.
9.23.2009 8:05pm
ChrisTS (mail):
Leo Marvin:
how does that not argue for delegating much of the review and analysis to people more competent to do so than the politicians?

Assuming my plan for ensuring the intelligence, high level of education, and rationality of legislators does not fly, you note the second best option. (Sort of like Plato's purportedly giving up on the Republic for the Laws.)

One fact that seems to be missing from much of the pro-read-it-all talk here is that ours is an extremely complex society. Can we really expect every congressperson to be an expert on medicine, medical insurance, the credit industry, tax law, banking, the environment, the fishing industry in New England, cotton growing, and on and on? I take it that this is the point of OK's first question about comprehension (a low bar, at that).

It is also worth noting that worries over unintended consequences increase, rather than decrease, the complexity of any bill or policy proposal. So, assuming most of us do not fancy a return to the world of the Vikings (sorry, einhvrfr), we have to choose: complicated legislation or lots of interpretation by courts and lots of unintended - because unconsidered - consequences.
9.23.2009 8:13pm
PC:
Oh, please no. Not that I have unduly gentle feelings for most of our congressmembers, but surely track changes is cruel and unusual.

But we have DVCS these days. Everyone can participate.

git rebase master

Oh dear.
9.23.2009 8:14pm
ChrisTS (mail):
Oh bother: leglislators should be legislators.

May I propose a VC permanent amnesty for the typo-challenged? I know I am not the only one who has to post these embarrassing 'oops' messages.
9.23.2009 8:18pm
K. Dackson (mail):
Professor Kerr:

Sorry to attract your attention in that manner. I do believe that I know the answer to the questions I have posed to you. Perhaps my rhetoric is just a tad over the top. I tend to swat flies with baseball bats at times.

I am simply asking why we should allow the people entrusted with writing the laws the excuse that "it's too hard" when those of us who are not in a position of authority don't get cut the same amount of slack.

These people are elected to do a job, no matter how tedious it is. As a professional in my field, I am responsible for EVERYTHING that goes out the door with my signature/seal. And I mean LEGALLY responsible. If I do not ensure my calculations are correct, I can be held financially responsible for making my client financially whole. I can also be brought up on charges of professional misconduct.

After all, we are talking about people's lives. In my field, people can actually die if I do not design something properly.

Why can't the so-called "profession" of politician be held equally responsible? I mean, after all, we are talking about people's lives.

People who write the laws appear to take the attitude that "laws are for little people". When a Charlie Rangel or a Tim Geithner evade taxes, why are they not held accountable? When a Barney Frank who wrote the laws and has the responsibility for oversight that untimately led to the collapse of FM/FM, where is the accountability?

If I miss my Continuing Education requirements, or convieniently "forget", I can be brought up on professional misconduct charges and risk my license. There are two rules at play here: one set for the connected and one set for everyone else. Remember laws are for the little people.

Now I do not have a problem with elected officials reading Executive Summaries - but most of them do not even do that. They mostly vote how their party tells them to vote and are given "talking points". This is a brilliant system we have here.

All some of ask is that the powerful are held to the same standards of professionalism that the rest of us are. Why is that so damn difficult to understand?

But I guess it's just another example of the "lawyers guild" just coming to the defense of its own bretheren.
9.23.2009 8:26pm
ChrisTS (mail):
K Dackson to OK:
Before you vote (i.e., grade) a paper, do you actually read it? Do you comprehend it? Or do you delegate it to a staff member (i.e., Teaching Assistant)?

Professors at large universities do have TAs who do much of the 'base grading' for the courses. Often, the professor runs 'norming seesions' with all the TAs for a course or has some other method of checking on how the TAs are doing.

Nonetheless, I doubt that even profs at large schools are confronted with the number of pages of difficult, often technical, writing [outside their fields] with which congressmembers are faced.

I may have missed your point, for which I apologize preemptively.
9.23.2009 8:27pm
ChrisTS (mail):
P.C.:

Oh dear.

Is that a good, bad, or neutral 'Oh dear'? More to the point, do the DVCS/VCS systems produce differently colored print outs for every iteration? Oh, dear, indeed.
9.23.2009 8:31pm
PC:
ChrisTS:

Is that a good, bad, or neutral 'Oh dear'?

Yes.
9.23.2009 8:40pm
K. Dackson (mail):
ChrisTS:

Please see the response to Professor Kerr above. My tongue was firmly implanted in my cheek. I am sure Professor Kerr takes his responsibilities quite seriously.

I knew how the system worked back in the ancient times, as I was a teaching assistant many many years ago, back in the mid-1980s at a technical college.
9.23.2009 8:45pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
One of the benefits of such a proposal is that it makes it easier to repeal legislation than to adopt new legislation. See this for an example of one I would introduce if elected to the Senate.
9.23.2009 9:30pm
Michael T. Drake (mail) (www):
I've read just about every word of every bill that's ever been passed. Just not in the bills themselves.
9.23.2009 9:57pm
AST (mail):
The problem with these questions is that they evade the real issue: should legislators and the public have an opportunity to know what's in the bills being passed. What good is legislative history to those trying to enforce a law if it was rushed through without any real chance to examine it and debate it? That's what legislatures are supposed to do--not simply rubber stamp whatever the leadership or the executive hands them! Courts defer to legislatures because they are expected to hold hearings, discuss and debate these things before they pass them.

I don't expect legislators to thread their way through all the asides, cross-references, and jot and tittle of the bills that are before them, but I do expect them to take time to understand just what is being proposed, consider it, listen to feedback and weigh the pros and cons before voting on it and not just pass bills like this Congress has done merely because a new President wants them all done in his first 100 days. That is legislative malpractice.

What we have witnessed is an abdication of the legislative role in the checks and balances built into the Constitution, and it put the lie to all the transparency promised by the President and the Democratic Party's leadership in Congress.
9.23.2009 10:43pm
Tom Tildrum:
OrinKerr: Oh, and I have added a bonus question for you all in the main post: I'd be interested in your views of it, too.

I don't have time to read the bonus question. Would someone please summarize it for me?
9.24.2009 12:32am
DGale:
1. I'd like to, but you can't require comprehension, just as you can't legislate compassion.

2. Yes. How else are they to know what it does?

3. Not by my interpretation of the pledge. If the legislation has a clear violation of the establishment clause in the first two pages, congressmen should have no qualms about voting it down regardless of any other niceties it includes.

4. They should absolutely read it. Overwhelmingly popular legislation that no one reads is a great vehicle for slipping unpopular legislation past the watchdogs.

5. If it's written down, they should read it. How long is the text of a cloture motion, anyhow? One sentence? Two? Hardly a major requirement, and knowing what you're voting in favor of is, in my mind, one of the requirements of the job. Workers are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the MSDS's their companies maintain for their safety and the safety of those around them, even for standard stuff like cleaning solution; how are procedural votes different?

6. Absolutely yes. Same as with the popular legislation above--a bill that people aren't going to read is a prime vehicle for passing earmarks and legislation that people don't want.

Those were easy. Got any others?
9.24.2009 8:37am
Dan Weber (www):
Isn't that what elections are for? Why would voters put up with politicians who use the "Oops..." defence?
If Dodd loses his seat, then we know voters won't put up with it.
So, as a shareholder, should I be outraged if the CEO is signing contracts without reading them in full?
If the CEO says "gee, I'm sorry I signed the contract that doomed our company, I depended on someone else to read it for me, go blame him" you should be outraged.

Delegation is fine -- essential, in fact. But when you delegate you are still responsible for the end results.
9.24.2009 10:46am
PubliusFL:
...---...: No laws longer than 140 characters.

140 characters? Forget programming languages. We'd ditch the verbose Latin alphabet for Chinese-style ideograms.
9.24.2009 10:49am
Fat Man (mail):

1. Would you also require the legislator to understand the bill? ... how would you test that?


A pile of blue books and three hours.

2. Imagine a particular bill is a long list of amendments to prior sections of the U.S. Code ... Would you also require the legislator to read the law that is being amended?



3. Imagine that a legislator has promised to vote against legislation of that general type — ... Does he still have to read every word of the bill even though he has promised to vote against it?


Why not?

4. Imagine a bill is up for a vote, and the bill is overwhelmingly popular: ... is there some threshold of controversy or importance that needs to be crossed before the reading requirement is triggered?


All the more reason to make the children of canines read the bill. they might find out that it is not such a great thing. Sort of like Obamacare.

5. Does the reading requirement apply to procedural votes, like cloture, or is it only on the passage of the legislation itself?


If the procedural vote is tantamount to a substantive vote.

6. Imagine Congress wants to dramatically limit the role of the federal government in American life, and there are bills up for a vote that do just that. The bills are very long, however, as they need to amend many laws, remove old parts, and introduce new parts that dramatically cut back on the size and scope of the federal bureaucracy. Do legislators need to read every word of those bills, too?


Yup.

If you think Congress should be legislating less, say so. There are certainly good reasons to believe there should be less legislation or that it should be easier to understand, but there's no need to couch this in the language of feigned ignorance about how institutions work.


So said. I am not ignorant of how Congress works. I am disgusted by it. If this simple change makes them work differently, so much the better.
9.25.2009 10:44pm

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