Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

The curse of modern legislation

Jerry Stratton, March 4, 2007

I remember a long time ago reading about some Germanic tribe that, on the ascension of a new “king”, the king had to recite all of the laws of the tribe; if it wasn’t recited, it wasn’t a law.

No idea how true that is, but I enjoyed the thought of it. I don’t think we could even do that with some of the single bills we pass today. How long would it take to read out loud some of the longer bills? In my quote file is something from a guy named Vincent Fox, probably on Usenet:

I think the curse of modern legislation is huge Congressional staffs with word processors. Having some poor schlub write everything out with a quill pen made sure that a 9,000 page Constitution wasn't possible.

Some of our bills today are so large that they generally aren’t even read by those who vote on them—and who expect us to follow them once they become law.

DownsizeDC.org is pushing a Read the Bills act to ensure not only that our representatives must read bills before voting on them, but that voters have the opportunity, too.

  1. Each bill, and every amendment, must be read in its entirety before a quorum in both the House and Senate.
  2. Every member of the House and Senate must sign a sworn affidavit, under penalty of perjury, that he or she has attentively either personally read, or heard read, the complete bill to be voted on.
  3. Every bill to be voted on must be published on the Internet at least 7 days before a vote, and Congress must give public notice of the date when a vote will be held on that bill.

These are all good ideas. I’ve suggested variations in the past, such as:

  • Here’s what I’d like to see. Before the President can sign any law, every senator and representative who voted against it gets to ask the President one true/false or three-choice question. If the President gets any one of those answers wrong, the bill does not become law. The answers become law as well: if the President’s answers are adjudged correct, those answers must be used to interpret the law.
  • I sometimes dream that all laws sunset, and that after the first sunset a supermajority is required to extend it; after all, if the law works, more will support it (this falls apart when I notice that even laws that don’t work seem to gain supporters after they become law; and of course we’d probably just end up with huge omnibus bills).

While requiring our representatives to read laws is a fine idea, I think the Internet requirement is the most important. Nowadays we’ve got some pretty smart computers on our desktops that can look for things that interest us. Requiring that no law is passed without giving us at least a week to look at it first is a huge step.

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