Reading Is Fundamental

by Conor Friedersdorf

Jeff Jacoby remarks on typical Congressional behavior that ought to be scandalous:

Congress passed the gigantic, $787 billion “stimulus’’ bill in February - the largest spending bill in history - after having had only 13 hours to master its 1,100 pages. A 300-page amendment was added to Waxman-Markey, the mammoth cap-and-trade energy bill, at 3 a.m. on the day the bill was to be voted on by the House. And that wasn’t the worst of it, as law professor Jonathan Adler of Case Western Reserve University noted in National Review Online:

“When Waxman-Markey finally hit the floor, there was no actual bill. Not one single copy of the full legislation that would, hours later, be subject to a final vote was available to members of the House. The text made available to some members of Congress still had ‘placeholders’ - blank provisions to be filled in by subsequent language.’’

Glenn Reynolds comments:

This sort of behavior passing bills that no one has read or, that in the case of the healthcare “bill” haven’t even actually been written represents political corruption of the first order. If representation is the basis on which laws bind the citizen, then why should citizens regard themselves as bound by laws that their representatives haven’t read, or, sometimes, even written yet?

It's a good question. And there are other reasons for demanding that politicians actually read the bills that they pass.

Simpler, shorter laws more accessible to the citizenry would result. Legislators couldn't plausibly claim ignorance about an egregious measure slipped into a bill for which they voted. Special interests would have less ability to hide advantageous language in thickets of subsections. The majority party couldn't game the system, using timing and parliamentary procedure to pass measures that wouldn't survive scrutiny. Powerful politicians would demand better, clearer writing if they had to wade through it themselves. An ability to consider fewer total pieces of legislation might even encourage the House and Senate to better prioritize their time. Finally, the average citizen wouldn't regard the reality of their legislative system as a corrupt sham.

Am I right in perceiving that it is usually conservatives who are upset about this issue? Why is that? It seems like the kind of thing that regular citizens on the right and left could agree to be outraged about. That's what I propose anyway, though I'll be damned if I can think of how legislators could actually be forced to put in the requisite effort to read what they vote on.


A commenter writes:

You ask "Am I right in perceiving that it is usually conservatives who are upset about this issue? Why is that?"

In a word, no.  I think conservatives and liberals alternate their outrage, depending on whether the substantively support or oppose the measure at issue.  Remember the PATRIOT Act?  I don't have time to research comprehensive links, but the "debate" on that bill was similarly abbreviated, and hardly anyone read the final text (of this 342 page bill) before they voted on it either.;  I didn't hear conservatives screaming about that then.