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Monday, July 13, 2009

The complexity of legislation and Congressional internal controls 


Washington insiders seem to think it is cute that voters expect Members of Congress actually to have read the complex and expensive bills that they pass before they, well, render them into law. On the contrary, it is not cute, quaint, or unsophisticated but rather essential that these representatives of ours put in the hours to know what they are voting for. It is, in fact, necessary to the proper operation of the republican form of democracy. Glenn Reynolds leads us to the governance argument:

If companies that are “too big to fail” are too big to exist, then bills that are “too long to read” are too long to pass. This sort of behavior — passing bills that no one has read — or, that in the case of the health care “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?

There is another aspect to this, which is that the idea that Congressmen need not read the legislation they pass makes a mockery of the good governance movement which has swept corporate America in the last decade, the main purpose of which has been to increase analogous accountability among the officers and directors of public companies. What is the salient feature of the Sarbanes-Oxley law? That a company's financial statements must be produced according to a process that is transparent and free of conflicts, and that the senior executives must understand that process and certify that they have complied with it. If you believe in SarBox (as most Democrats purport to do) for businesses (with which, after all, we interact voluntarily), then how is it possible to defend an opaque and conflict-ridden system for the enactment of fiscally dramatic and socially transforming legislation that will alter our lives whether we ask for it or not? Congress has again, as it has so many times before, demanded a standard of behavior from private organizations and individuals that it will not submit to itself.

Americans ought to hold Members accountable by asking them to sign a representation that they have read (or assigned staff to read) and take responsibility for every provision of every bill for which they have cast a vote, and resolutely throw out the bums who cannot say they have done so.

26 Comments:

By Blogger Brett_McS, at Mon Jul 13, 06:40:00 AM:

Note good enough. Every word should be read out aloud in the house, and only those attending the whole reading should be allowed to vote.  

By Blogger randian, at Mon Jul 13, 06:43:00 AM:

One might go further and ask whether what was voted on is what was entered into the Federal Register as law. If no member of Congress has read the bill in its entirety, how would they know? The opportunities for corruption are breathtaking.  

By Blogger JPMcT, at Mon Jul 13, 07:08:00 AM:

Hmmmph...who is going to enforce this concept on this collection of leftist dolts? The Executive Branch??

The Cap and Trade Legislation was not even delivered to the well in the House when the vote took place. They didn't just NOT READ IT...THEY WEREN"T EVEN VOTING ON A PHYSICAL BILL!!

Incompetent. Corrupt. Unconstitutional.

But hey...there was the "must see" Michael Jackson funeral special on all the channels!!!!!!

We had more important things to do!!  

By Blogger sykes.1, at Mon Jul 13, 08:40:00 AM:

The Republic is finished. It is dead. Our Executive, Congress and Judiciary are corrupt and incompetent beyond redemption. Our future will be either a Communist dictatorship (Obama's goal) complete with Gulags, Stasi, Brownshirts and Neighborhood Watch Committees or a military coup d'etat, Pinochet/France style, with the disappeared dropping into the Atlantic and Pacific.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Jul 13, 08:50:00 AM:

We need a constitutional amendment making it a felony for a member of congress to vote for a bill he or she has not read in its entirety.
It probably also should make a felony out of taking money from an organization on behalf of which one has inserted an earmark.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Jul 13, 09:02:00 AM:

Sad to say, but could it be we don't deserve to be free people and we're getting the government we demand?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Jul 13, 09:08:00 AM:

While we are at it, why not include a provision prohibiting any tax increase from taking effect until such time as every member of the House, Senate, and Executive Branch has been subjected to IRS audit and passed with all penalties paid in full....

JackHawk83  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Jul 13, 09:25:00 AM:

From Link,

Two picky points. Laws don't go into the Federal Register which is for agency rules. There are sources for statutes. thomas.gov -- named after Jefferson -- is the official site of Congress. You can find current bills there. There was a real bait and switch going on over Energy. The real bill didn't show up until many days after the vote.

What's more important than representatives reading the bill is exposure of what's in a bill and how it got there. Many of the things in a bill like Energy look like gibberish without being put into context. You can read it all you want without understanding what it's really about. Much of the time only the lobbyist knows what's it's about.

It is shocking that the House was voting on a bill with whole provisions to be named later.

I lay the problem on our two parties. They represent themselves, not us. We do have the framework for a great government. It's just been corrupted.

Link over  

By Blogger Country Squire, at Mon Jul 13, 09:34:00 AM:

According to Dr. James McHenry, at the close of the Constitutional Convention Dr. Benjamin Franklin was asked by a woman “Well Doctor what have we got - a republic or a monarchy? A republic replied the Doctor if you can keep it.” It has always been a struggle to keep the Republic and our time is no different.

Should we pass laws or constitutional amendments so those elected to conduct the people’s business are forced to actually do it? What, exactly, do our congressional representatives they think they were elected to do? Somehow, reading and understanding any bill they vote on would seem to be the least they could do. But as recent events have shown, it does not appear they can even rouse themselves to do that much.

Which brings us back to Glenn Reynold’s point – “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?” The answer is self-evident. The process of “keeping our Republic” has begun anew and the only question is how best to accomplish that goal.

I submit that it is not accomplished by petitioning our elected representatives to do their jobs.  

By Blogger Stephen, at Mon Jul 13, 09:59:00 AM:

Continuing Anon's "picky points" above, the failure of our elected representatives to "read" legislation is understandable, and not just because they only give themselves a few hours to read thousand-page documents. If they had days or even weeks to do so it would do them little good. 

As a CPA I've had the misfortune of trying to read tax legislation as it comes out of the sausage factory. Most of it is incomprehensible because new laws are written as additions or deletions to existing law. You want to wait for the "conforming" copy that has the modifications incorporated. Even then the reasonably intelligent reader would be lost. There are so many cross-references that after a few hours of flipping back and forth across thousands of pages one just throws up one's hands and decides to wait for the subscription service to explain what happened.

That is why the staff are so powerful. Congressman Blowhard wants to, say, limit the deductibility of mortgage interest. He has no clue which sections, subsections, paragraphs, and subparagraphs of the IRC should be changed. He hasn't thought through how AMT-payers would be affected. Effective dates and transition rules are mere details. He just tells the staff to put in the changes. Is it any wonder that we inevitably see a "technical corrections" bill because the language had effects that were not what was intended?

Sodden afterthought: Software companies have beta versions because they have found through sad experience that improvements don't work as hoped for, or, worse, they've screwed up sections that were working and had not intended to be changed. Too bad we can't beta-test our laws.        

By Blogger Noumenon, at Mon Jul 13, 10:19:00 AM:

Tigerhawk, I'm surprised an executive would fall for this one. It's like making it your fiduciary duty to handwrite out a copy of every contract your company signs. A good idea if my goal is to keep you from ever getting anything else done, a bad idea if I think it will improve your diligence on the contracts.

On the other hand, you could keep Senator Dodd off the TV news for several days by submitting a bill that read "Senator Fulltime Employment Act: see other page. Provision two: see previous page."  

By Blogger MainStreet, at Mon Jul 13, 10:47:00 AM:

I tried to read the first drafts of the "stimulus bill" and found it impossible to understand without fully researching the previous referenced bills. A "plain speak" bill requirement for congress prior to any vote and judicial comparison to the final bill might be a solution.

The way it is done now, no one knows what they are voting on.  

By Blogger Brian, at Mon Jul 13, 11:01:00 AM:

TH, your proposal is a massive transfer of authority from the legislative to the executive branch. Do you really want that to happen for the next 8 years?

I suppose I could live with it....  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Jul 13, 11:28:00 AM:

From Link,

Obama got elected promising more transparency in the legislative process. He even made specific promises about posting proposed laws online for five days before signing them. He's already broken these promises several times since. With the Dems in total control you'd think they'd be sensitive to this.

From a process standpoint Stimulus was bad and Energy was worse. I can't wait for Healthcare.

Dems in Congress are living in a bubble. Is it to much to ask that when lobbyists write the laws the ink be on the page, let alone dry?When unemployment keeps going up, the Revolution will begin.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Jul 13, 11:29:00 AM:

[i]"I submit that it is not accomplished by petitioning our elected representatives to do their jobs."[/i]

Exactly, Squire. The Founders handled the tyranny of "taxation without representation" once before, and they didn't solve it with the freedom of speech. Hopefully our "representatives" will develop a better ear for their petitioners complaints than King George did. I hope 10 million people show up to protest in DC on 9/12.  

By Blogger Noumenon, at Mon Jul 13, 12:02:00 PM:

I do have a more realistic suggestion, which I heard at Aguanomics blog: "I suggested, for example, that bills in committee be edited on a wiki so any outsider could see which member changed what part of any given bill." Don't make everyone understand everything, just make one person responsible for each thing.  

By Blogger Papa Ray, at Mon Jul 13, 12:35:00 PM:

"I tried to read the first drafts of the "stimulus bill" and found it impossible to understand without fully researching the previous referenced bills. A "plain speak" bill requirement for congress prior to any vote and judicial comparison to the final bill might be a solution."

Mainstreet I have attempted the same thing as a few of my friends have. It is impossible and a waste of time.

But so is this "Plain Speak" that you and I and millions of others would like to see.

You yourself should know why after attempting to read this gobbledgook, governese, legallaitze... millions of words and interpretations which even those who wrote it are not even sure that they understand or got across what they (or their bosses) actually meant.

Then you have the actual implementation and enforcement that varies and is mis-interrupted by the rest of the hundreds of thousands of government workers.

You also have to understand that these "documents" are written by aids, interns and government subterranean people who never see the real world or even the real and present light of normal human days. I'm not sure what name they could be called but sometimes I'm not even sure that they are "humans".

They are a product of our grotesquely evolved, misguided, corrupt and bought federal government.

Yet, in most cases, they are the only real Holders and Sayers of the bills, laws, and atrocities that come from our American Legislature.

The fact that they are given their marching orders and direction by our legislators is important, but still they hold the power of being the writers and framers of these monstrosities that come out of our elected government.

Ever hear of the "Reset" button that was delivered to our friends and enemies?

One needs to be delivered to our Present Government. If not by vote then by other means.

Buy More Ammo...

Papa Ray
West Texas
USA  

By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Mon Jul 13, 01:01:00 PM:

A good idea if my goal is to keep you from ever getting anything else done

Bingo! When congress "does things", is when the public interest and purse is at most risk.  

By Anonymous Koolau, at Mon Jul 13, 01:30:00 PM:

Only a US Senator or Representative can not show up for work for two years and still collect 100% of his pay and benefits Look at Obama, he didn't even do his job as a Senator while he was campaigning. I'd like to see any private citizen try that at his job and expect to see no repercussions.

I wish our legislature could be a part time position where these fools won't have as much time to create all kinds of stupid laws and regulations.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Jul 13, 02:16:00 PM:

I pretty much agree with Sykes.1 about heading for total disaster.

History tells us the political classes aren't going to reform - i.e. literally change their methods and ideas - because things are just swell for them now. And getting better.

And the huge numbers of people who work for government see no need to change. Neither will their family members.

No matter how it is explained state and local governments cut back for only one reason, they have promised to spend money they don't have and can't obtain.

They have been unable to extract more by taxation and they can't find anyone to borrow from, and they have no more public assets to sell.

Now what do we hear when spending is cut?

Then the media almost universally says that even the layoff or furlough of one public employee is the equivalent of new Black Death sweeping the Earth. It is an anguish nearly unbearable to mankind.

And it all has been brought about by selfish taxpayers or stupid voters who can't understand the needs of their superiors.

What about other classes?

The poor who rely upon welfare of one form or another aren't going to risk much, some live so poorly now they fear any disruption. Some others believe the correct role of government is to redistribute.

Anon XII  

By Blogger Gammer Gurton, at Mon Jul 13, 02:53:00 PM:

Hmp. Caligula was right.  

By Anonymous tyree, at Mon Jul 13, 06:50:00 PM:

State and local government is guilty of the same thing. In the 1980's the state of California passed ground a breaking handicapped accessibility building code. Unfortunately, the wheels of government were all spinning at different speeds so building departments all through the state were enforcing the code that wasn't even finished yet. The construction industry, and a massive portion of the state job market, was forced to buy a simplified "interpretive manual" and build to that, and hope that the eventual law did not stray from it in a substantial way. I have never seen an estimate as to what the price tag was, but just based on my experience, it had to be inconceivable. .
Unfortunately for the citizens, then as now, the state government doesn't really seem to care about the cost of legislation.  

By Blogger Noumenon, at Mon Jul 13, 07:24:00 PM:

When congress "does things", is when the public interest and purse is at most risk.

I agree, I just think a change like that should be accomplished more by Constitutional amendment or ideological mind-changing instead of a deceptively reformist-sounding program that disguises its true motives.  

By Blogger JPMcT, at Mon Jul 13, 08:34:00 PM:

Great comments.

Mark Twain had it right when he said "There is no distinctly native American criminal class... except Congress."  

By Anonymous Billy Bob Corncob, at Mon Jul 13, 09:06:00 PM:

I of course agree in principle.

However, there is a major obstacle. You assume they can read.

Yes. you assume they can read.

I think that is quite a leap.

On a more serious, but only slightly different note, all of my friends who have been senior Hill staffers are quite clear that what gets one elected is not intelligence, but the perception of affability. This is why, they tell me, Barney Frank runs circles around Republican members of the House (about which I should relay a story some day regarding George Gekas, that is, Congressman George Gekas.)

I will also note that it is a bit more complex, though I agree with the spirit.

As you know, I was in the White House under GHWB, who defnitely took his job seriously. I can assure you he did not read every bill he signed. Nor could he. Nor could any single person. Let alone read it intelligently.

Every year around budget time, we (Counsel's Office) would receive a raft of legislation, and then we would split up the spending bills and read them as quickly as we could, with an eye toward mischief. It was difficult. Similarly, when Congress passed the 1991 budget reconciliation act (or was it 1990) we had not seen advance copies (thank you Dick Darman protecting your turf). We had to read it in an afternoon or the like. We split it up, or perhaps 5 or 6 of us each read it as quickly as we could.

Of course, if you want to divide the Union into roughly 5 separate Republics of equal size, I would not object. Makes good sense to me. When was the US population 60 million last?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Jul 14, 01:26:00 AM:

I think (heh) that it should probably be considered encryption (the complexity of the legislative writing, that is). It is encrypted so that only those that understand the encryption can understand what was done.
That does not include the great majority of the citizens of this so-called Republic, and probably not a majority of our so-called representatives.

The incomprehensibiity is a feature, not a bug, to those who are controlling the process, so to speak. Not that the process is meant to benefit us; that is a pleasant side effect, not necessary.
This has been going on for years, only now they are more brazen than ever, with the Media giving the Obama Administration a daily tongue bath.

-David  

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