Some Legislators _Do_ Read Every Bill before Voting:

My father Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House of Representatives. He represented part of northeast Denver, as a Democrat. Among the posts he held were Judiciary Committee Chairman and Assistant Minority Leader. (His website is here.) He did read every bill before voting on it. Sometimes he was the only legislator who did so; at other times during his tenure, there were a few others who did so, including Republican Tim Foster.

For 18 of the 22 years, he was a member of the minority party. By actually knowing what was in the bills, he was able to offer amendments to improve the bills, take out over-reaching provisions, and so on. More importantly, because he knew what the bills contained, he was not dependent on lobbyists to describe the bills to him. This was particularly important if the lobbying power on one side of a bill was very lopsided.

For example, in 1990 a bill to significantly expand Colorado's already-bad civil forfeiture laws was introduced. It passed the House Judiciary Committee 12-1. (Although my father served for many years on the Judiciary Committee, by that time he had switched to the Business Affairs Committee.) The weekend before it was due to come up on the floor of the House for a vote, he read the forfeiture bill. Speaking on the floor of the House, he showed the legislators that the bill was far more onerous than its lobbyists had claimed. The bill was defeated by a solid bi-partisan majority.

The Colorado Constitution requires that each bill shall only concern a single subject, which shall be clearly expressed in the title. This provision is sometimes stretched to the limit (and beyond) with broad titles such as "Concerning criminal justice" (the typical title for the District Attorneys' annual omnibus wish list). Even so, the single subject rule does help make legislation more comprehensible for citizen legislators.

One other data point on reading bills: When the NAFTA legislation was moving through Congress, Ralph Nader challenged the Senators and Representatives to read the bill, because, Nader said, reading it would change their minds. Colorado Republican Senator Hank Brown responded by reading the massive bill. As a result, he said, he changed his mind, and voted against it.

There was a House member here in sunny Fla. who made people CRAZY by... reading every page of every bill and bringing up the embarrassing parts that the leadership didn't want to get much public attention. Even when they dropped huge bills off the morning of the vote (they love to do that), she grilled 'em over the whole thing, every time. How did they reward her - she never even got a bill through committee. Maybe that's why they don't read the bills.
9.23.2009 7:47pm
These anecdotes support the very reasonable ideal of *knowing the contents* of bills. The objections that many are raising to the proposal is that it requires actually *reading the words* of bills.

It seems like everything you described could have been accomplished just as well if a competent and trustworthy staffer had prepared outlines or summaries of certain parts of legislation.
9.23.2009 7:52pm
Bill Sommerfeld (www):
What do those opposed to requiring all legislators read every word of every word think of a requirement that 10% or 20% of the legislature publicly certify that they had read and understood the entire bill prior to allowing the bill to come to a vote?
9.23.2009 8:06pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Kudos to your dad.

There is of course, a potential middle ground. Even if one decides that it is unreasonable or a waste of time for all legislators to read all bills, one can expect them to read the most major pieces of legislation, like NAFTA, health care reform, etc. How about a rule where they have to read every bill which will have a fiscal impact on the economy of greater than, say, $500 billion?
9.23.2009 8:14pm
frankcross (mail):
I'm not sure the state analogy is a good one. Certainly not for Texas, where the legislative output is small. And I'm not sure the NAFTA example strengthens the case.
9.23.2009 8:24pm
Bruce Hayden (mail):
No surprise there about Hank Brown. That integrity was part of why he was put in charge of cleaning up CU (after doing such a good job at UNC). I was sorely disappointed when he did run for a second term in the Senate.
9.23.2009 8:41pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
It is possible to read the bills if one develops one's speedreading skills, which I recommend. It should be a qualification to serve as a public official who has to decide on things like legislation. It was my speedreading skill that led the members of Congress I aided in the early 1970s to review proposed legislation (and sometimes government reports). It is possible to eventually achieve speeds of as much as 20,000 words per minute.
9.23.2009 9:39pm
Bama 1L:
It is possible to eventually achieve speeds of as much as 20,000 words per minute.

That means I could read the federal constitution in less than 30 seconds and my state constitution in about 18 minutes!

Why didn't someone tell me about this before law school?
9.23.2009 10:49pm
SFH (mail):
It is possible to eventually achieve speeds of as much as 20,000 words per minute.

But do you understand what you read?
9.23.2009 11:48pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):

I would actually suggest a different test:

Most bills should be read in proportion to the responsibility the legislator has over them. An appropriations bill should be checked for obvious errors and the breakdowns of particularly relevant sections for the legislator double-checked.

Regulatory and criminal bill should be read carefully prior to discussion because this ensures valid discussion.
9.24.2009 12:14am
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Oh, and the one issue per bill clause is an EXCELLENT idea. It ensures that bills are actually readable to a large extent (and then only relatively speaking).
9.24.2009 12:15am
I wonder if it important/better for law students to "read the cases" or "read the textbook" or if they can rely on summaries and outlines and Gilbert's guides and so on.

I wonder if it important for literature students/critics to "read the novels" or if they can wing it with the Cliff's notes or the just read the first and last chapters.

I wonder if it important for military commanders to review the text of the orders they promulgate, or if they can rely cavalierly and completely on their subordinate staff when they assure them "don't worry, it's all in there, it does what you think it does."

I wonder if it would be an adequate defense for a corporation and its general counsel to say "Well, no, we didn't read the whole bill - that's impossible, we read the summaries, the committee reports, etc... the exact same things that the congressman read, coming to the exact same understanding that the congressmen deid, but it turns out we "innocently" violated the law. Our reasonable understanding excuses what turned out, unexpectedly, to be "technically" illegal behavior, right?
9.24.2009 8:22am
Jon Roland (mail) (www):

It is possible to eventually achieve speeds of as much as 20,000 words per minute.

But do you understand what you read?

Depends on the material, and how much thought it takes to understand each point. If it's a familiar subject that isn't very deep then one can understand as well at 20,000 wpm as at 200. Obviously, if it consists of a lot of cites to other material then one may have to take the time to look up that material. (Hyperlinks have a role for that.)

At the time I was volunteering on Capitol Hill my max speed was only about 8,000 wpm, and I had to slow down for much of the material. It took about another 20 years to get it up to 20,000 wpm. And since then a stroke that caused a defect in my field of vision has reduced it some, but such speeds are possible for much of this kind of reading.

There are many kinds and speeds of reading for different purposes and different kinds of material. The art is to read in the way that best fits the material and the situation.

Obviously one doesn't want to read poetry that way.
9.24.2009 10:43am
The person who votes on a bill should know what's in the bill, and should get that information from someone who isn't a lobbyist. And who can be fired BY THAT LEGISLATOR for providing misleading information. If the legislator relies on staff summaries, he or she should instruct the staff on what to look for. And the staff should always be on the lookout for things that are dramatically different from the common understanding of the bill's content.

It might actually be easier to read the bills than to ensure the summaries are prepared accurately. But a legislator who can take the time to manage subordinates well can certainly rely on them.

Somebody who isn't a lobbyist should be reading the bill, though. And making sure the legislator knows what's what.
9.24.2009 10:49am
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
It may be (past) time to reconsider the doctrines of Ignorantia juris non excusat or Ignorantia legis neminem excusat (Latin for "ignorance of the law does not excuse" or "ignorance of the law excuses no one") The doctrine presumes it is possible for everyone to know the law, but that has become impossible. We may need to go to a doctrine that requires warning of a violation and giving reasonable time to cease, before charging or prosecuting, just as we require demands and time to comply in civil actions.
9.24.2009 11:00am
James Wilson (mail) (www):
Jerry Kopel's laudable example is the reason we need a Read the Bills Act and a One Subject At A Time Act at the federal level. The intent of such legislation is to a) hold each member accountable for making a well-informed vote (aka "representing the people"), b) to provide time for legislators and the public to discover and expose bad provisions in bills, and c) to slow Congress down and force it to produce only quality, necessary legislation. This in turn will slow down and perhaps reverse the growth of government.
9.24.2009 2:44pm
silvermine (mail) (www):
Seriously, I wonder if there is anyone who has ever worked "in the real world" who agrees that legislators can not read the bill and rely on staffers and lobbyists.

If I did half the things our legislators did in a "real job" in the business world, I would expect to be fired pretty immediately.

For some software development examples:
The guys in QA have to go test the code -- they don't just rely on the word of the programmers about what's in there. If they don't have time, they move the deadlines in order to fully test it. (Or risk putting out badly tested software and go out of business and/or get sued.)

When I write a manual, I can't just write it based on the specs. I have to actually *use* the software. I'm sure everyone would argue that I just don't have enough time to do this. Well, I find the time, or the project manager delays the deadlines. If the manual doesn't match the actual software, people complain.

Heck, if a bug gets through or an error is in the manual, the company releases a patch or an update. When will we see the patch for such rushed and horrific bills as the stimulus, bank bailout, or CPSIA?
9.24.2009 2:57pm
Tracy Johnson (www):
"Who controls the past, controls the future, who controls the present, controls the past" - George Orwell's 1984
9.25.2009 4:59pm

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