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Reading Is Fundamental

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, there's a good discussion about Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT, Dead Man Walking) and his recent surprise to discover certain provisions in the recent "financial reform" law.

What's so surprising about this is that Dodd wrote the damned bill.

OK, that's a little unfair. No one believes Dodd actually wrote the bill. What Dodd did was put his name on it, but presumably because it had been written with his input and he agreed with it enough to sponsor it.

The first point this raises is a rather moot one: that Dodd is a corrupt, inept, greedy, lazy swine who should never have been entrusted with any political office higher than City Pooper Scooper. But since he's finally leaving office (sadly, not chased out by defeat or headed off to prison), kicking him is rather meaningless. Not pointless, as it reminds all of us just what the good people of Connecticut saddled us for far too long, and we shouldn't be too eager to forgive them, and certainly fun, but pointless.

The bigger point is this: should we expect our lawmakers to read and be familiar with every detail of every law they pass? Even the ones where they don't claim authorship? For example, the "health care reform" bill ran over 2,000 pages (that's almost a half a case of paper -- run down to your local office supply place and look at four reams for a visual aid) -- how the hell can we expect ANYONE to actually read all that before casting their vote?

How the hell can we NOT? How can we not only expect it, but demand it?

Everyone knows the saying that "ignorance of the law is no excuse." We're all expected to obey the laws, even if we don't know what the laws are.

But isn't it even more critical for the people making the laws to understand what they're imposing?

That would make an interesting scene in court: the defendant is accused of breaking the law. They call as a witness the official author of the law and ask them to testify on just what the law says and what their intent was, and watch them fumble and stammer and finally admit that they are just as ignorant of the true effects of their law as the defendant was.

It'd never happen, of course. No judge would allow it, and no legislator would walk into the courtroom without having been briefed night and day on the bill. But imagine that in some of the more complicated cases -- such as my personal favorite, the corruption trial of Tom DeLay -- if DeLay could have called up the authors of the laws he was accused of violating as "expert witnesses" and explain just what the law covered and how DeLay had broken it.

So, the bills are too complicated and involved and just plain too long to properly review before they're called for a vote? There are several very easy solutions.

The first is to delay the legislation until it can be reviewed properly.

The second is to make the laws simpler. If it's a real crisis, then a simple bill can address the immediate problems, and the long-term concerns can be addressed after due consideration.

The third one is the one I favor: if a lawmaker is uncertain as to just what a bill does, then he or she should "just say no."

In college, I served in student government. And I had a simple rule: if I didn't understand a motion, and didn't have time to study up on it, I voted no. This not only preserved the status quo, but left me in a position to introduce a "motion to reconsider" should I later find out I should have backed the measure.

But I refused to give my assent to anything I didn't understand.

Now, that was an extremely trivial example, but the principle scales nicely. It also dovetails with the first principle of medical ethics: "First, do no harm."

Finally, there is one reason above all else that demands that lawmakers actually read and understand the laws they vote on:

It's their goddamned jobs,

This is the job they sought out and fought for. This is the job they begged us to entrust them with. This is the job for which they are paid very handsomely.

The most important part of their job is to pass or reject laws. Everything else takes a back seat. And if they are saying that -- for whatever reason -- they can't carry out the most fundamental part of their job, then they need to get out of that job. Willingly or unwillingly.

When a lawmaker says that they did not fully read and understand a bill that they voted for, that should be seen by their constituents as a de facto resignation. Because they've just admitted that they're taking our pay and acting in our names while not knowing what the hell they are doing.

But back to Dodd. He's done. He's history come January.

But there are a lot more members of Congress who are admitting that they voted for bills -- the "financial reform" and "health care reform" bills are good recent examples -- that they didn't even read, but just trusted their party's leadership that they were good and fine.

We need to remind them that they don't work for Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi, but for us -- and we expect them to do their goddamned jobs.

And if they won't, we'll find someone who will.

Just look at the economic news -- lots of people need jobs these days. And the job market for "legislator fired by voters" is pretty crappy.

And any politician who would dare say something like "we just have to pass the bill so you can see what's in it" needs to be tarred, feathered, and ridden out of town on a rail.


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Comments (24)

For most of the beltway ins... (Below threshold)
jim m:

For most of the beltway insiders (of both parties) having the bills unreadable and incomprehensible is not a bug it's a feature. That way the bills can be all things to all people. The bills contain whatever your current audience wants.

Congress wants the bills to be overly complex because that relieves them of he responsibility of actually having to know what they are doing.

Thank you. Good one, and ex... (Below threshold)

Thank you. Good one, and exactly. I like the short but sweet laws. Definately like the; 'when in doubt don't', thought too.

The problem here is the fra... (Below threshold)

The problem here is the framing of the question! In the current Obamaesque atmosphere EVERYTHING IS A CRISIS! that means "No time to read the bill"....Just vote and then "we can find out what is in it!"

That has been the theme since "The anointed" took office. None of his several bills passed would have survived if they had been exposed to the light of day, vis-a-vis, actual Congressional discussion. Only by labeling them as "C-R-I-S-I-S!" legislation were they passed.

Obama is a master of deceit. He brought the anti-abortion DEMs in with a charade pulled on idiotarians who believed his executive order held water.

November comes....we vote....we cure the problem!

Agreed in principle, with a... (Below threshold)

Agreed in principle, with a couple caveats:

A general understanding of the bill should suffice. Because the laws are written in detail (in some cases to deny unelected bureaucrats too much control, and passing bills that are too broad is worse), it is both unlikely and unreasonable for every representative to understand all of the details. I doubt you would understand the intricacies of the NSA's technology. If you were in Congress, should you then be denied the ability to vote on their budget? I don't have the medical knowledge to determine what is 'medically necessary', should I then be prevented for funding 'medically necessary' procedures? Nor do I know have the engineering background to know the best way to rebuild the levees in New Orleans, should that keep me from approving funding to do so? No one person is an expert in everything that comes before Congress and if anyone says they are, they're lying.

Because of that, I am fine with representatives relying on others (staff, trusted colleagues, expert witnesses) to gain the basic level of understanding they should have. If someone I trust vouches for a particular bill, I'm good with going along.

Jim M: it actually takes mo... (Below threshold)

Jim M: it actually takes more effort and knowledge to write a complicated bill than to write one that has nothing but broad proclamations.

The problem, Steve... (Below threshold)

The problem, Steve @4, is that for too many years the government has been run the way you describe and has gotten to the point of 2000+ page bills which no one can understand and which are terribly harmful in the details.

I don't know if we can immediately go back to Jay Tea's solution of smaller, simpler bills which our elected officials read and understand, but we must try.
By electing neophytes, which the establishment groups are so fearful of, and them voting no as Jay Tea suggests, would at least slow down government growth.

It is such a complex problem, there are no easy answers (duh - obvious, isn't it?) but we need to elect persons who will at least try to begin the dismantling of huge government bills and bureaucracy which is strangling the prosperity of this country.

Hear, hear! Fantastic argum... (Below threshold)
David S:

Hear, hear! Fantastic argument for getting rid of all these ignorant statists.

You're on to a meaningful t... (Below threshold)
gary gulrud:

You're on to a meaningful tear here. The delegation by Congress of its regulatory authority to unelected, often unionized, "expert" bureaucrats has become an abomination.

Congress sought in proceeding down this road(credit Teddy the dissipative cheat) to avoid all responsibility and criticism in the exercise of that 'deemed' authority.

All the hue and cry over entitlements obscures the real coming war-government is The Problem with America. D-Day, if it comes, will follow Nov. 2012.

Ever wonder why the Foundin... (Below threshold)

Ever wonder why the Founding Fathers never wrote legislation 1000 pages long? The answer is painfully clear.

SteveI believe that ... (Below threshold)

I believe that is why we have committees with members from both Parties and lengthy vetting process. That way every aspect of the bill would be exposed to the light and if it is complicated then call in some experts.

However the process doesn't work when one party writes the bill behind closed doors and don't take the time to examine it by both Parties.

Publishing the bill well before it voted on, gives outside organization time to examine it and expose its features as well. Obama and the Democrats promise to do that but lied. IMO there should be a rule that a bill should be publish for anyone to read at least one week in advance. Any change including changing a period to a comma would reset the clock. An exception for a "true" emergency bill with 3/4 of the Reps voting to bypass the procedure would be understandable.

"And any politician who ... (Below threshold)

"And any politician who would dare say something like "we just have to pass the bill so you can see what's in it" needs to be tarred, feathered, and ridden out of town on a rail."


"Congress wants the bills to be overly complex because that relieves them of he responsibility of actually having to know what they are doing."

It's always been my contention that they like the complexity because it's like insider trading for them. They clearly understand the parts they insert (when a bunch of them do it, it becoms complex) and they can then go about exploiting those provisions. When others not so much in their favor get wise and start exploiting the same provisions, it suddenly becomes "a loophole we must close!" But this is almost always after they've benefited greatly themselves.

I think your analogies are flawed. Such as: "Nor do I know have the engineering background to know the best way to rebuild the levees in New Orleans, should that keep me from approving funding to do so?" No one expects lawmakers to know how to build a levee in order to be able to provide funding for it. All they need to consider is whether a levee is necessary.

The only time that laws are... (Below threshold)

The only time that laws are "complicated" is when someone is trying to hide something.

Agree except for the last l... (Below threshold)

Agree except for the last line. You seem to think that the market for ex congresscritter is slow. I would disagree. There are going to be lots of openings at the lobbying groups as there are going to be so many new congresscritters that they are going to need the valuable input from the previous group. Hopefully the new ones will know to ignore the lobbying efforts of the previous critter.

One possible solution:... (Below threshold)

One possible solution:

The original bill has to be posted on the internet when introduced along with the names of the sponsors. (Allowances can be made for classified military budget items.)

Ditto for all amendments.

Ditto for any changes made in conference.

The final form of the bill has to be posted at least a week before a final vote is taken.

Once it's up, let the crowdsourcing begin! Organized and unorganized groups on both sides would go through the legislation with a fine toothed comb. A future "Senator Dodd" couldn't say he didn't know what was buried in the bill, his constituents would damn well let him know what was it the bill.

Hell must be freezing over,... (Below threshold)

Hell must be freezing over, I agree with Rance!

Oh wait, way too logical for Rance, someone else must be sockpuppeting him!

Oyster: how do they know wh... (Below threshold)

Oyster: how do they know whether a levee is necessary? Or which of multiple approaches is best?
By putting faith in someone else to provide guidance.

Question: most people here (me included) approved of the Bush tax cuts. Where was the bitching when Congress passed them despite most of them likely not having read the bill? And not a peep about Bush having signed it... Does anyone believe he read and understood the entire bill?

Take it further than what R... (Below threshold)
Big Mo:

Take it further than what Rance suggests. Regulation rulemaking and proposed rules & guidelines by the Fed, FDIC, etc. for things Congress makes into law have to be published in the Federal Register 30, 60 or more days so that the public can comment on them. After the comment period is closed, adjustments may or may not be done to the proposed rules or guidelines, and then the things are finalized.

The same thing should happen with all congressional legislation (except true, dire emergencies, proclamations, etc.).

The idea of a waiting/publi... (Below threshold)

The idea of a waiting/publishing timeline is excellent.

I would also like to see an abolishment of amendments which have no bearing whatsoever on the bill. This could help keep a bill "pure" so that someone could actually understand it and have the added bonus of eliminating lots and lots of "pork" projects which could never stand on their own merit.

I must say, I have no idea how one could accomplish drafting or passing such a rule of the house or senate, but then, I'm not paid the big bucks, either.

#16 - Steve, the 2001 and 2... (Below threshold)

#16 - Steve, the 2001 and 2003 tax bills were a COMBINED 132 pages, not 2,000 plus. So yes, it's plausible Bush may have actually read it prior to signing. It's more likely he had aids divide it amongst themselves and provide reports to him about the sections they read. I seem to remember some GOP senators attempting to do the same thing with the 2,000+ page monstrosity known as Obamacare. I don't know how successful they were in their attempts. Sen. Dodd, on the other hand, I'm sure had other things to do and more important things for his staff to do as well.

"Oyster: how do they kno... (Below threshold)

"Oyster: how do they know whether a levee is necessary? Or which of multiple approaches is best? "

Well see, now you've changed the argument. I was speaking to what you said the first time.

It's one thing to know whether a thing is needed and another to know how to build it. But this health care bill was sweeping and had large and glaring mandates and liabilites that impact everyone in the country and we had congress members who didn't even know the basics.

The fact is, these guys didn't know what everyone else had in the bill yet they voted for it. If it's too big to read and at least have the basics down, then it's too big to vote on it with any certainty at all what one is doing.

What I find really disturbing is that we had private citizens who went through the bill and had a better understanding of it than our Congress.

Now that says a lot.

Wasn't it Neil Cavuto who h... (Below threshold)

Wasn't it Neil Cavuto who had a speed reader read the HC bill on his show and Nancy Pelosi (I think) said it was a political stunt?

Totally agree. As JPO allu... (Below threshold)

Totally agree. As JPO alluded to Buh employing, Congressmen even have AIDES presumably to help with these duties; mostly lawyers so they again presumably know the implications. There should be a law that no law be over 100 pages.

This rant is the basis of a... (Below threshold)

This rant is the basis of a letter I sent to my senators and representative last year. I told them I would consider them passing a bill without having read it to be an abrogation of their oath of office.

Specifically, how can anyone honestly claim to be protecting the Constitution against domestic enemies if they're passing legislation they haven't even read, let alone understand?

18. Posted by Grace ... (Below threshold)

18. Posted by Grace

Your ideas are excellent. Maybe our new House could pass a resolution to change the ways bills are designed.
I would add that the review period for a bill should be based on the number of pages.






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