Friday, August 07, 2009

Should Legislators be Required to Read the Bills They Vote On?

“If a bill is too big to read, it's a good sign you shouldn't be passing it. Rule by anonymous technocrats is a form of tyranny, however benign.” —Mark Steyn

Mark Steyn believes that every legislator should be required to read in its entirety any bill upon which he or she votes. One of his readers took issue with this stance (here):
“Every CEO in the country, including Ronald Reagan as President, reads executive summaries of important documents. The idea that any Senator has to read an entire bill is nonsense. He needs staff not only to read it but to relate how items on page 3 relate to provisions on page 1009. Did George Bush read every line of the bills he signed? Bill Clinton signed Welfare reform and I bet he did not read the final bill (though to be fair he is wonky enough to have read a lot of it). What is true is that without time there is no way staff could read it and draft the necessary critiques for Senatorial review but this “He hasn’t read the bill stuff” is stupidity not some great insight.”
Steyn completely disagrees with this line of thought. He replies that a senator “is not a CEO — notwithstanding the vast Gulf Emir-sized retinue to which he has become accustomed.”
“He doesn't run anything. He has no payroll to make, no contracts to fulfill, no deliveries to expedite. A legislator is elected to legislate — so, if he doesn't read the law before he makes it law, he's not doing the only job he has.”
That last comment is worth serious consideration. This raises a couple of questions.
  • What precisely is it that we hire legislators to do?
  • How well do they actually perform these tasks?
Steyn suggests that if the legislator is using other parties to do the only job they are hired to do, the legislator is of little value. Besides, transferring the main tasks of the job to technocrats, as noted in the quote at the top of this post, is a form of tyranny.

Another of Steyn’s readers writes in to remind that “Congress passed the onerous Sarbanes-Oxley on the premise there needed to be a new law requiring CEOs to read their financial statements and personally face legal penalties in case there are errors.” What could be more appropriate than making them take their own medicine?

Steyn drolly notes that Sarbanes-Oxley was “Another hastily drawn piece of must-pass-now legislation that's done wonders for our overseas competitors.”

I fully subscribe to the concept that no legislator should be permitted to vote on any piece of legislation that she or he has not personally read in its entirety. Another philosophy is that no bill should exceed 10 pages in 12-point font with one-inch margins.

The main idea here is to make sure that those we elect to represent us in making laws are fully aware of what they are voting on. The hope is that this would cause more serious deliberation. It would also necessarily slow the pace of legislation. While some see that in a negative light, many think that less legislation coming out of Washington and our state capitals would produce an overall public good.

But the law of unintended consequences applies everywhere. One possible side effect would be to push more policy out of the realm of elected legislators and into the already expansive realm of unelected appointees that enjoy far too much arbitrary power. It would be easy. Bills would simply be filled with statements like, “With specific regulations to be determined by the Department of ….” After all, politicians are nothing if not inventive of ways to avoid taking responsibility.

You could try to draft policy that would take these things into consideration, but it would likely exceed the 10-page length limit mentioned above. There is simply no satisfactory substitute for a culture of individual liberty that regards the aggregation of coercive powers with tremendous suspicion.


Anonymous said...

We have an unfortunate (but consistent) tendency to elect celebrity politicians. I don't mean to say that they are always famous before we elect them, but we elect people who have the capacity to present well on television. They know how to use soundbites, they know how to make a scene, and they usually know how to dress up. None of those things is bad necessarily, but their job is to legislate, and if we don't understand what legislation is we have no chance of even considering if they have any skill at that. Legislation is the process of gathering information - specifically in areas where there are competing interests involved - and applying principles of good government to come up with the best solution within the constraints of any superceding law (that would be the Constitution if nothing else for any U.S. legislator).

Frankly we have the whole process backwards. We elect spokespeople and they hire staff to do their legislative job. We should hire legislators, people who are studious and committed to principles we can support and then they should hire staff to handle what will almost certainly always be an overwhelming volume of communications while they focus on the tasks of legislating - that would always include reading the bills, not just listening to executive summaries. (Of course I have no strong feelings about this.)

Jake said...

I think it would be absurd to require legislators to read every bill or resolution. That is why they have a staff. We don't expect our representatives to do the whole job by themselves, so we let them hire staff.

But at the same time, there should be some rules guaranteeing them the time they need to have staff analyze it so that they are making an informed vote.

I would like to see a minimum time allowed for bill consideration based on the length of the bill. Give them something like 1 day for every 50 pages a bill is long.

rmwarnick said...

I must have missed your post condemning the USA PATRIOT Act, a classic example of complex legislation passed in a hurry-- with bad consequences for the country.

One good thing-- USA PATRIOT abolished the eight-year statute of limitations on torture. That means former President Bush, Dick Cheney and their subordinates will be subject to criminal prosecution for the rest of their lives.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Richard, I know that you love to drop comments on supposedly conservative blogs claiming that they love the Patriot Act. You do this even when the post could only be obliquely related. Oddly, you never seem to research the blogger's past posts to see whether he/she has ever expressed the same kinds of concerns about the Patriot Act that you have. Don't you think this tactic has become more than a little tiring?

Look, the Patriot Act was (like Sarbanes-Oxley) a huge government power grab, pushed through in rapid fashion on the greased skids of massive public fear. How can any legislation like that help but be harmful?

Scott Hinrichs said...

Jake, I agree that legislators should be given ample time to read and ponder each bill upon which they will vote. I don't know how you'd ever successfully implement a requirement that they actually do their reading assignments. So perhaps your suggestion is better.

Anonymous said...

"Another philosophy is that no bill should exceed 10 pages in 12-point font with one-inch margins."

I think this is the best idea. Or for Congress, maybe even say it can't exceed 100 pages. This would not only make it more likely that representatives will read the bill but would also make it so they're not voting on so much at one time.

I really like that Utah's constitution requires that all bills can contain only one subject, so you can't throw in all sorts of reforms into one massive bill.

Also, perhaps more important than getting legislators to read the bills is that citizens can read the bills. I doubt there are many citizens that will read a 100 page bill let alone a 1,000 page bill. Even if the representatives don't read the bill, if the citizens do, then the representatives will hear about it.

Good thought-provking post.

Tanner Guzy said...

If staffers are the only way a legislator gets their info on a bill, those positions should be publicly elected as well. Otherwise the legislator is just a puppet of his staffers. We need to elect moral legislators. By moral I mean, those who won't pass a bill without knowing and understanding what's in it.

Scott Hinrichs said...

That's the spirit!