Wednesday, April 27, 2005

'Read Bills Before Voting' -- Legislative Dream?

Writing in the Washington Post last November, Representative Brian Baird (D-Washington), stated ruefully:

There is now an inverse relationship between the importance of legislation and the amount of time members have to study it before voting.
Baird noted that "prominent examples from the 108th Congress" of legislation that needed -- but lacked -- scrutiny before votes
include the Medicare prescription drug bill, the energy bill, the intelligence bill and the defense authorization bill. These important pieces of legislation total more than 2,900 pages of text and authorize more than $1 trillion of spending. Yet, collectively they were available to members for less than 48 hours total for reading.

If forced to tell the truth, most members of Congress would acknowledge that they did not fully or, in many cases, even partially read these bills before casting their votes.

It is true that summaries of the legislation were available and that many of the bills had been discussed for some time before the final drafts were brought to the floor. But the devil is often in the details, and without access to the full text members cannot know those details.
Picking up on this theme a few days later, Fox News commentator Radley Balko wrote:
Most Americans think their elected representatives in Congress deliberate and debate the costs and benefits of a bill before voting it into law.

Unfortunately, most members don't even read the laws they pass. Neither do their staffs. Instead, they more often than not rely on summaries prepared by the bill's authors, or by interest groups whose judgment they trust.
Balko notes how two of the most notorious pieces of legislation of the past five years were passed behind a veil of ignorance:
The Patriot Act, for example, weighs in at 340 pages — svelte by federal legislation standards. Yet the Senate was given just three days to read the bill before voting on it (and approving it 98-1). And just two days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Sen. Orrin Hatch found a pending appropriations bill due for a vote, and tacked on a slew of amendments that served as a kind of precursor to the Patriot Act — again, giving the Senate no time to actually read and contemplate them.

Campaign finance provides another example. After passing much-celebrated campaign finance reform last year, lawmakers on Capitol Hill were forced to call in legal experts to advise them on how to abide by the Byzantine set of rules they'd just passed. One of the bill's leading Democrat supporters told the New York Times, "I didn't realize all that was in it."
Now a new organization, which calls itself Downsize DC, has come up with draft legislation that would require Senators and Representatives to read bills before voting on them. Downsize DC, unknown to me until recently, says in its mission statement:
We believe the federal government has grown too large, too intrusive, and too expensive. We believe in constitutional limits, small government, civil liberties, federalism, and low taxes.

We want to end laws and programs that don't work, cause harm, and violate the Constitution. We want to restore the full force of the 9th and 10th amendments, which reserve most social functions to the people and the states.

Our goal is to reduce the federal government to a tiny fraction of its current size, decentralize power, end deficits, federal borrowing, and monetary inflation, and eliminate most federal taxation and the IRS.
Very libertarian sentiments -- I expected them to be written by someone I know. Yet upon examining the list of its "Founders Committee" (divided into "Patrons & Sponsors" and "Associates"), I did not recognize a single name. This is good news: it means that libertarian ideas and ideals are spreading beyond the core libertarian movement, as characterized by such well-known organizations as the Cato Institute, the Institute for Humane Studies, the Reason Foundation, or the Institute for Justice.

Back to the specific issue that sparked these reflections: Downsize DC has drafted a bill (but apparently has not yet found a congressional sponsor) based on this principle:
We hold this truth to be self-evident, that those in Congress who vote on legislation they have not read, have not represented their constituents. They have misrepresented them.
The key passage in the draft legislation is in its Section 3, which I reproduce here in full (apologies for the length, but if I want my congressmen to read the bills, I expect my blog readers to read at least an excerpt of them):

(a) Chapter 2 of Title 1, United States Code, shall be amended by inserting at the end of the first sentence of Section 106, the following: “provided however, that no bill — including, but not limited to, any bill produced by conference between the two houses of Congress and any bill or resolution extending, modifying, or otherwise affecting the expiration date of a bill previously passed and enacted into law by Congress — shall pass either house of Congress: (a) without the full text of said bill, and the full text of each and every amendment thereto and — if the bill or resolution extends, modifies, or in any way affects the expiration date of a bill previously passed and enacted into law — without the full text of such bill or resolution and the full text of the bill previously passed and enacted into law having first been individually read verbatim by the Clerk of each house to the body of each house called to order and physically assembled with a quorum present throughout the time of the full textual reading of said bill, and of the full text of any bill previously passed and enacted into law, if any, that is the subject of a bill or resolution extending, modifying or in any way affecting the expiration date of such previously passed bill enacted into law; and (b) without the full text of said bill, and the full text of each and every amendment thereto, and the full text of the previously passed bill and enacted into law, if any, having been published verbatim on the official Internet web site of each house at least seven days prior to a final vote thereon in each house, together with an official notice of the date and time on which the vote on the final version of said bill and its amendments will take place.”

(b) Chapter 2, Title 1, United States Code, shall be further amended by striking the last sentence of Section 106, and substituting therefor: “With respect to each bill and each and every amendment thereto, and each bill previously passed and enacted into law, the expiration date having been extended, modified or in any way changed by a bill or resolution, each house of Congress shall cause to be recorded in its journal of proceedings: (a) that the reading, printing, and publishing requirements of this section have been met; and (b) the names of those members of the Senate and of the House present during the reading of each bill and each and every amendment thereto. Each member of the Senate and each member of the House shall execute a sworn affidavit, such affidavit being executed under penalty of perjury as provided in Section 1621, Title 18, United States Code, that the member either was present throughout the entire reading of each bill, each and every amendment thereto, and listened attentively to such reading, or, prior to any vote on passage of the bill, and each and every amendment thereto, personally read attentively each bill, and each and every amendment thereto, in their entirety. Neither house of Congress, nor Congress jointly — by concurrent resolution, or by unanimous consent, or by any other order, resolution, vote, or other means — may dispense with, or otherwise waive or modify, the printing, reading, entry, publishing, recording, or affidavit requirements set forth herein.”

(c) Chapter 2, Title 1, United States Code, shall be further amended by renumbering Sections 106a and 106b to 106b and 106c respectively and adding a new Section 106a as follows: “Enforcement Clause. No bill shall become law, nor enforced or applied as law, without Congress having complied fully with the printing, reading, entry, publishing, recording, and affidavit requirements of Section 106, Title 2, United States Code and any person against whom such a bill is enforced or applied may invoke such noncompliance as a complete defense to any action, criminal or civil, brought against him. Any person aggrieved by the enforcement of, or attempt or threat of enforcement of, a bill passed without having complied with the printing, reading, entry, publishing, recording, and affidavit requirements of Section 106, Title 2, United States Code, and any member of Congress aggrieved by the failure of the house of which he or she is a member to comply with the requirements of Section 106, and any person individually aggrieved by the failure of the elected Senator of the State in which the aggrieved person resides, or elected member of the House of the District in which the aggrieved person resides, to fulfill that Senator's or House member's obligations under Section 106, shall, regardless of the amount in controversy, have a cause of action under Sections 2201 and 2202, Title 28, United States Code and Rules 57 and 65, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, against the United States to seek appropriate relief, including an injunction against enforcement of any law, the passage of which did not conform to the requirements of Section 106.”

I have long been a proponent of legislators reading bills before voting for (or against) them. I have discussed this idea with local and state representatives, who tut-tut and privately decry the disgraceful habit of voting on bills they have not read, but go ahead and cast such votes anyway. I am glad to see that an organization has taken on this quest, however quixotic it might be. At the very least, Downsize DC's efforts may force members of Congress to defend this indefensible practice before their constituents -- U.S. taxpayers and voters.

Remember the name of this proposal:
This Act may be cited as the “Read the Bills Act of 2005.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fantastic! Spread the word on Downsize DC and notice Jim Babka and Harry Browne here: